Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cooking the Captain

It's Theater Thursday: I happened upon an opportunity (or rather, being a lazy sod recently, had it thrust upon me) to see the opening night of the Tartu New Theater's Cooking Captain Cook at Genklubi.

And d'you know what, I really enjoyed it.

I won't analyze or review the play in detail, because I don't want to prescribe the meaning that you are meant to derive from it. It was not a bold manifesto, a cultural landmark, or a performance that will live on in legend; rather it was an excellent piece of theater, and is tragically rare these days. In fact, I would maintain that at this point in time, in this country, small, enthusiastic, semi-professional troupes such as Tartu New Theatre provide a far superior experience than even the best of the established institutions.

A few months ago I saw the new version of Richard III playing at Sadamateater, produced by Vanemuine and directed by some presumably impressive Englishman, and it was boring as shit. Except for a rather decent performance of the title character, this play, the highlight of Tartu's theatrical season this winter, was utterly devoid of soul or imagination. It might have been because of Shakespeare, of course - the instance of War of the Roses I saw some years back at Leigo was equally bland: it is as if an entrenched authority can only be tackled via three hours of generically postmodernist "look how clever we are" wankery. The last performance I remember myself truly enjoying - so much in fact that I went back and saw it again on its final night - was a drama about quarterlife angst by a Russian-speaking student theater in Tallinn, and if you've been reading this site for a while, you'll have an idea of how I normally feel about angst.

Theater's initial purpose is to tell a story, but now that we have more efficient media for that, its purpose is to make you feel. Art's worth is properly measured by its effect on an unprepared reader, and from what I've seen of Estonia's theatrical establishment - from Vanemuine to Linnateater to whatever is left of the Russian Drama Theater these days - it has devolved into an incestuous circle jerk, and any new blood it chooses to co-opt is inevitably as pretentious and uninspiring as the old guard. Good theater makes you feel, and it makes you enjoy yourself; if you're not a theater critic by trade, if you go in without preconception and come out feeling unsatisfied, at best thinking that it may have gone above your head, but it sure felt clever - then you were ill-served by your entertainers. The fault lies with them, not you.

Cooking Captain Cook is different by way of its simplicity. There is certainly meaning to be had there, and pleasure, but the performance won't make you work for it. On Tartu's premiere bohemian stage, Tartu's aggressively anti-traditional theater has put on something that is, in a very old-fashioned way, just plain good.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

February Mailbag of Legislation

More lawmaking commentary today. Two interesting bills are up for a vote in the near future:

1) Establishing an LLC without cash.

There are a bunch of different ways to do business as an individual in Estonia - from signing ad-hoc contracts with your customers (the way I do it with translation agencies), to registering as self-employed, to starting a limited liability company.

Self-employed status gives you a bunch of benefits, such as a VAT number and the ability to write off business expenses, but also some inconveniences in terms of how you pay tax. Incorporating as an LLC is the best way to go, and the process is streamlined: you can do the entire thing online in half an hour. The big hurdle is that you need to have the starting capital, 40,000 EEK (~2500EUR). Up to half of it can be made up of material assets without additional paperwork, but you still need to have a pile of cash that will be tied up in the business. You can get the money out of the company's account right after it's established, but what if your business doesn't require any material investment? The only tools of the trade I need to run my freelance work are a netbook and an Internet connection. Now, I could use the LLC's starting capital to pay for both, VAT-free - but it's still very inconvenient to tie up 40k in a business with very little up-front investment and negligible recurring costs.

The new bill will allow an LLC to list the up-front capital as the founding partner's liability. Basically there's still 40k on the books, but it doesn't have to be an actual pile of cash or a bank balance. If someone has outstanding claims against my company, they can sue me personally to take up to 40k's worth of my personal assets.

The upshot is that anyone with a bright idea can incorporate over a lunch break, and start doing business immediately. Considering that we're a small country that is trying to stimulate high-tech, dynamic businesses where the principal investment is the owner's time and effort, this is an excellent move, and frankly I'm a bit disappointed that it took the government so long to get to it.

2) Mortgages to become non-actionable.

The gist of this is that a borrower's liability will be limited to the collateral. When a homeowner can't make the mortgage payments, the bank's only recourse will be to sell the house, and the borrower gets to walk away from it. Currently, the borrower is liable for the actual loan amount, so if the house is worth less than the balance of the loan, he'll have to keep paying. The only way to wipe out the debt is to go through a personal bankruptcy, which means five years of constant supervision by a court-appointed administrator.

I don't actually like the idea, because in my opinion the government only has a very minimal responsibility to protect people from their own stupidity, and overpaying in a booming market is the sort of mistake everyone should be able to make on their own. Certainly the economic liberals in power are also against the idea, as are the Swedish banks. Normally I would dismiss it as just another piece of populist legislation that has no hope of passing - it was introduced by the Social Democrats - but the BBN article claims there is support for it in the ranks of the coalition as well.

I'm pretty sure hell freezes over before Reform supports the bill (but then Jõgeva has been seeing -30C temperatures this winter), but there is at least one line of reasoning that might convince some IRL members with re-election jitters to go along with the plan: it's not like we're overly sympathetic to the plight of the banks. The effects of the property bubble's burst in Estonia could have been far more dire if we didn't have relatively strict lending rules in place already - most importantly, the loan amount was a direct correlation of the applicant's income, there was no widespread practice of giving "interest-only for the first three years" type mortgages to deadbeats trying to flip properties for a short-term profit. The insane growth in Estonia's real estate prices was precipitated by low interest rate margins and growing salaries.

So stricter-than-elsewhere banking regulations made the inevitable crash not as disastrous as it might have been, and by the same token, new and even stricter banking regulations are probably a Good Thing(tm) as we're recovering from the credit crunch. I still don't think it's necessarily a good idea, but if the Riigikogu's right wing sees a need to engage in some kind of populism, this is one of the better bills to support: it is straightforward in principle, has no immediately obvious loopholes, and its primary negative consequence is that banks will be forced to only issue home loans to people who can afford them, on properties which are more or less reasonably priced. Interest rates will go up, the construction industry will suffer another hit, and fewer people will be able to build equity rather than just spend a portion of their income on rent, but at least we'll have learned from our mistake and will be forced to rely on something other than real estate for our economic growth.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Friday, January 22, 2010

January Mailbag of Awesomeness

A few things have piled up, none of them deserving a whole blog post, but it's been quiet around here.

1) It appears that Estonia will be joining the Euro in 2011. There could still be a political decision to keep us out, but the numbers are seemingly in order. I won't dwell on this; I've already written at length why accession is good and why the common arguments against it are stupid. The Euro is not a cure-all, but Estonia is at its best when it has a goal to strive for, and the Euro was enough to justify the government's austerity measures - which are a Good Thing(tm) in themselves. The question is, what will our next grand target be?

2) In an unusual development, an MP has actually come up with a good idea: switch Estonia's smaller islands to electric cars. Nowhere on these islands (up to and including Vormsi) will anyone be driving more than 100km a day, so range is not an issue. At the same time, hauling petrol and diesel to these islands is a significant cost, whereas an electrical grid is something they'll have anyway. There are issues related to battery performance in cold temperatures, but as Norway is one of the world's biggest markets for electric cars, I'll assume there are solutions.

3) In the spirit of promoting Estonian businesses and services that I find genuinely useful and well-executed, have a look at ale.ee. It's a discount database, linking directly to purchase pages. There are still some bugs to iron out (such as listed prices from sites like Pixmania, which tack on some fairly hefty shipping charges), but overall it's a great, free service.

4) For all the technology and the Web-based nature of our lives, there is still no replacement for a person being really, really good at their job. To that end, I have been extremely impressed with the work of travel agents. Estravel had a good offer on Turkish Airlines flights to Australia , which I grabbed (fortunately I can plan my vacation quite far in advance). The Estravel agent was immensely helpful. I rerouted one leg of the trip after paying for the tickets, and it only cost me something like 250EEK; then, the agent helped me find connecting flights from Tallinn to Istanbul. Initially I booked flights with a stopover in Prague, paying 6700 EEK for them - a good 500EEK less than the airline's website quoted. Then Czech Arlines suddenly decided they weren't interested in flying the Prague-Istanbul route any more, so I got direct flights out of Helsinki - for a mere 2700EEK!

Two conclusions: 1) Discount airlines are essentially worthless, their only use is to force the mainstreamers to drive down their prices - this is not the first time I've found that a major airline will be both cheaper and a better experience. 2) Having a really competent person help you with your travel arrangements is excellent. I worked with Estravel's senior travel consultant Mare Must, but after the initial trip down to their central Tartu office, all of our communication was by email. If you're planning a trip, send an email to marem@estravel.ee - not only will you be giving her the commission (thereby positively reinforcing professionalism and excellence among customer service in Estonia), but you will most likely end up paying less than you would on your own.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We made it. The crap decade is just about done; let's hope the next one will be better. The 21st century started on 9/11; I think the twenty-teens will be remembered as having started in '09, with Obama's inauguration. In this country, should the next decade really be better, it will have started on 2011 - when we adopt the Euro. The Bank of Estonia says we're quite likely to meet all the criteria. The government is saying that the budget is filling up on schedule, the cuts in public spending have done their job. If this pans out, it will be a great example of an Estonian truism: the Reform party is the one you want to be in charge when the economy needs to be fixed, even if they're not to be trusted with actual politics. There was a recent scare with a leaked European Commission document that was less than generous towards the Baltics, but Germany's Finance Minister says we're fine. I'm still not absolutely convinced we'll make it, but the government sounds like they're quite confident about it - much more so than I'd expect from a hail mary.

The AnTyx award for positive example of the moment goes to SmartPOST, the package shipping company that lets you drop off and pick up packages at your local supermarket, and even ship commercial stuff like eBay-equivalent purchases. They've just expanded their services to Finland, but I'm more impressed by the fact that their automated shipping stations are being used in Italy, with negotiations to bring them to other EU states. This is a technology and concept that was developed in Estonia, and the equipment is being built in Viljandi. Exactly the kind of high-tech, ingenuity-based export that the country needs. Estonia's competitive advantage is the ability to roll out and debug an infrastructure on a relatively small and manageable scale, before deploying it in far larger markets. This needs to be exploited, and SmartPOST is doing just that. Good on them.

The AnTyx award for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory goes to Coffee In. This is a local coffee chain, started in Tartu and expanded to Tallinn. Unlike Reval Cafe or other competitors, it's not designed as a place to hang out - the idea is that you grab your coffee on your way to work. Their shops used to be all over Tartu, including one in the lobby of my office building, and their loyalty program gave you ever 5th (or something) drink free. Then the majority of shops closed down, and the loyalty program got progressively worse - and now they've replaced a flat discount with a preposterously complicated points system, where your benefit for each month depends on how many drinks you had in the previous month. Considering that the only Cofee In locations left are in shopping malls, and not anywhere near where I might actually want to grab a latte on the run, the company is an excellent example of a good idea being killed off by crap management. Which is a damn shame, because I quite like their coffee.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Moka Bravo

Not that I'd want to impinge on comrade Mingus's territory, but I do make an effort of publicising outstanding businesses when I encounter them in Estonia. At the moment, I'm quite impressed by the Moka cafe.

The location is most known for its thin-crust pizza, and back when I was in university, I'd spend many a free period in the Pronto Pizzeria that was Moka's previous iteration. The cafe was renovated a few years ago, getting a better decor and some vital additions, such as an easily accessible bathroom. They kept their mainstays of pizza and a soup/salad bar, adding a pretty good selection of baked goods.

I'm not sure when exactly they got their current chef, but Mingus had good things to say about Moka back in October. Recently, they also got a new PR person, because Moka now has a pretty aggressive consolidated presence across Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. They continuously post beautiful shots of really well-presented dishes. Normally I'm not necessarily a fan of zealous advertising, but Moka manages to not be annoying or overbearing about it.

I went in the other day, and ordered something off the menu - the seafood bisque. It was outstanding. A delicious, creamy broth served over a half-dozen scallops, backed by a side dish of a fishcake and potato mash, all garnished with sundry seafood and served beautifully. If they're using pedestrian ingredients, they're hiding it well through both preparation and presentation, and seafood is a very difficult thing to get right in Tartu - the very posh and self-important La Dolce Vita served me diced surimi sticks on a frutti di mare pasta not so long ago. Were I to criticise, the biggest downsides of my Moka experience were the single napkin that my knife and fork came wrapped in (I don't have the dexterity to operate scallops without resorting to my fingers), and the fact that the bread served was a store-bought roll with the sort of cheap cheese topping that Mingus hates with a passion. But this really is the biggest gripe I can think of, and I am being terribly petty: they wouldn't have denied me more napkins had I asked, and the roll was at least warmed up. Competitors such as Truffe or Pierre have better bread, but Moka's food was miles ahead of anything I'd had in either recently. Most importantly, the bisque was a laughable 72 kroons! It may be expensive for a soup, but this was a hearty enough dish to satisfy an adult, and at less than five Euro, it is scandalous value.

Moka Bravo indeed. I just hope they can keep it up.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Monday, October 05, 2009

Tim Minchin - Storm

Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

The Slightly Used Book Shop

I've often said that there are only a few international consumerist icons that I really wish existed in Estonia, and that among them are Subway (the sandwich place), and Waterstone's bookstores. I have a vocational disorder where I cannot read a book in translation if I know the original language - I keep getting distracted by the artifacts, keep going "I see what you did there". The selection of English books in Tartu and Estonia in general, while significantly improved in recent times, is still inadequate for my requirements. Half of my baggage coming back from the States was dead tree.

Yes, there's Amazon, but a)shipping gets expensive, and b)I still enjoy the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar bookshop and browsing through the tomes. It's probably ironic how, in the age of the Internet, physical books are still so eminently popular. Popular enough, in fact, to fall under the "80% of everything is shit" maxim. For proof, go no further than the guest segments on The Daily Show.

I saw something in NYC that is even better than Waterstone's, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders. The biggest bookstore in Manhattan does a very brisk business in second hand. They actually have a section and staff dedicated to buying back people's books.

This is an idea that, I think, would be extremely beneficial to Tartu. I have actually considered doing it myself, except for the fact that I am far too lazy to handle all the minutiae of starting up and running a small business; I would need to find a really good manager and stay a silent investor type myself. (I do know a person who'd be perfect, but that very character quality means she's already quite busy with various organizational duties.) But I genuinely think that a slightly used book store could be successful in this town. Tartu has an Apollo and a Rahva Raamat, and the university bookshop, but beyond that it's just antique stores with derelict wares. There must be others like me in this town, people with shelves stuffed with books they enjoyed once but probably won't re-read in the future. If, say, the average new English-language paperback costs 150 EEK, my shop could buy them back for 50 and sell for 75. And we don't have to limit ourselves to English books, the point rather is to offer a cheap alternative for modern, mainstream literature, in any (physical) form. How many times do you think we would re-sell the same Harry Potter volume, collecting a profit each time? I gather that US videogame stores have been doing quite well off that model.

And no, I wouldn't be competing with libraries: they have a limited selection, aren't motivated to keep up with demand, and come with a built-in obligation to return the book by a certain deadline. Ownership just feels good.

Until I get off my ass and make this happen, however, here's the next best thing: BookMooch. It's the book version of an idea some friends and I threw around for a while, the International Beer Exchange - the point was to mail a bottle of your local brew to someone far away, and get a credit that you could use to request a different flavour from elsewhere. (I even owned the domain internationalbeerexchange.com for a while.) My plans for the Slightly Used Book Shop did actually involve providing the service across Estonia, using the SmartPOST network. BookMooch is a more Web2.0 community-ish affair: you list the books you no longer want, and people can show their interest. You send off the book, and get an arbitrary credit that you can use to request another book from someone else. Encouragingly, Estonia is actually already represented quite well, with around 60 books currently available.

Here's my page on that service. Sign up, and tell your friends about the service!

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 7 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

I hereby suggest that the below extract from this XKCD strip be adopted as the autoironic mark of technical writers everywhere.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Do Want, Assorted

It's spring and the gadgets are coming. HP has finally released the HD-screen version of the 2140, and I want it. I've got a 2133 right now, as long-time readers might remember; it's by far the best notebook on the market in terms of build quality, and has an excellent keyboard that I have typed very long texts on. The trouble with the 2133 is its dog-slow CPU. The 2140 has an Atom CPU, which means it's faster and lasts longer on the same battery. It also has a larger screen, in the same outer casing. Up until now the screen they offered was a meager 1024x576, but the new one is 1366x768 (same pixel count as the 2133, but 10.1" instead of 8.9").

I just tried the configurator on HP's website and a 2140 with the HD screen, six-cell battery, 2gb RAM and a 7200rpm hard drive came out to $684 (sans Windows). That's less than I paid for my 2133 a year ago, and it's the top hardware they have. The 2140 is even available in Estonia; let's hope they get the HD model in stock soon.

Meanwhile, I keep drooling over cameras. The Sigma SP2 is what compact cameras should have become ages ago: a really good sensor in a small body. It has no optical zoom, but it shoots in RAW mode, so at 14mp you can just crop to taste. Still, it costs $649, and ultimately I don't need all those megapixels; what compact cameras really need is a very, very good 2mp sensor. (How many photos have you printed in poster-size, in your life?)

This should appear in Europe soonish as the Canon 500D. It's the 50D's sensor in a 450D body. Desirable for a second, but ultimately I will probably have to wait for Micro Four Thirds cameras to drop in price. I need a tilt-screen, and the entire SLR concept is useless for digital cameras; its point was to show the same image in the viewfinder that would be captured on film, but now you can just export the signal from the sensor to the LCD, before it gets captured in full detail. Micro Four Thirds keeps the high-quality sensor and swapping optics of DSLRs, without the extraneous bullshit, and in a smaller package. Since there are companies making adapters that let you fit standard Nikon/Canon lenses to MFC bodies, that's definitely the way to go. Until then, there are things my Canon SX10 can do that I still haven't learned to use properly.

By the way: the keyboard on my N85 broke and became unglued. Apparently it's a common problem, a design flaw. I like the hardware on the N85, but the build quality is atrocious compared to the 6500C I had before, and the phone itself is a lot more expensive. So while I'm waiting for Tele2 and Nokia's warranty to get back to me, I've ordered an Ericsson T39 off eBay. 344 EEK including shipping, and two batteries. It's old, and it's eminently cool.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Result.

An interesting quote at Julien Frist's euroblog (original at EU Observer):

Perhaps the best news is that the outcome of the elections is not known. That is a huge achievement for a post-Soviet state. Pretty much everywhere in the region (with the exception of Ukraine, and to some extent Georgia) election results are known well in advance, and elections do not really matter.

My first reaction is, obviously, "ahem!". The Baltics have their troubles, but we are resolutely democratic; our electorate can be manipulated by populism and appealing to its darker instincts, but the elections really do reflect the will of the people. It is offensive to have Moldova looking down on us in terms of fair representation.

However, I honestly don't think it was malice on the author's part; rather, Estonia and its neighbors are no longer thought of as post-Soviet. Unlike Moldova, which is a semi-artificial nation resulting from the Soviet Union's annexation of a part of Romania and often (if unfairly) mistaken for a shard of Yugoslavia, we have now established an identity that is not dominated by our Soviet past. To the likes of Nicu Popescu - pundits from clear across the continent - we are the plucky little states that are scared of their Russian neighbours, but for some indecipherable reason don't just do the logical bit and become part of Sweden. Also really good with computers. But not really part of the whole mess of former Soviet republics trying to build a working society out of a tribal mentality and the rotting remains of imperial infrastructure.

Which is kind of the effect we've been going for, really.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Grassroots Credit



Walking into town on Sunday to pick up my car after a night of severe intoxication, I strolled past Tartu's office of Parex Bank. No, I didn't know we had one either; but apparently we do, and what's more, it's still operating - and what's even funnier, they are advertising 9.5% return on deposits in Estonian kroons.

Now, obviously, very few people would be foolhardy enough to place their savings in Parex these days, but it is the vanguard of an interesting phenomenon. Russian economic blogger Artyom Eyskov of Superinvestor.ru mentions today that a bank in Russia is offering a savings deposit plan at 20% per annum. Furthermore, Artyom took the time to check out that plan's terms, and it appears legit - which motivated him to do a little investigating and come to the conclusion that the bank in question is gathering up cash wherever it can find it, in order to pull off an investment so lucrative that even significant interest payouts are worth the bother. (The bank's offer is not an investment plan, but a deposit, so it is guaranteed by the Russian government.)

And then there is Vabakapital.ee: a company that seeks investment, promising payouts of between 16% and 28% - even at the bottom end, that's a very big reward. They're not a venture capital or an investment fund, but rather an intermediary - providing the connections between people with cash to spare, and entrepreneurs in need of loans. They advertise to both sides and, presumably, charge both sides a fee.

Of course there are some caveats, the most obvious one being that the company does not actually assume any risk. It's not a financial institution; if the deal goes sour, Vabakapital is not liable. However, it is a very good idea, and a highly curious phenomenon.

The problem of the credit crunch is not a lack of capital, but a lack of faith, as exercised by institutional creditors. The nature of business in a time of industry and globalization is that business deals are conducted against lines of credit; if you need raw materials, you're not actually going to hand over a bag of cash to a guy in China once a freighter docks at Muuga. Instead you're going to give your supplier a letter from your bank, saying that the bank is confident you're good for it. Hell, more often than not, if you and the supplier have an established relationship, he's just going to trust you. Sure, there are legal papers saying you have to pay, but that's not the same as cash on delivery.

So business runs on credit, and yes, banks are a large part of it (many companies use short-term bank loans to smooth out cash flow, and most have borrowed from the bank to grow the business anyway). Now, the banks put a lot of their money into really stupid deals that naturally fell through. I'm not going to go into detail on that, suffice it to say that banks are left with not just huge losses, but no real idea of how much they lost - the assets they got for the deals are worth something, and nobody has a clue how much exactly (but not a lot). So banks are afraid they have too little, and won't give out loans.

Without loans, businesses can't produce and deliver. The demand is actually still there - at least until all the workers get laid off - but without lubricant, the machine grinds to a halt.

And here's the important bit: just because a business can't function, doesn't mean it's not a good business.
So in the global economic crisis, somebody with some spare cash can actually make a very good investment - buy a functional, profitable, well-structured business that has simply been tripped up by the act of globalization shutting down for a year. The machinery is still there, the people, the business contacts, and most importantly - the paying customers. Just needs a bit of liquidity to get it moving again.

And if the banks won't help, then there is an opportunity for individuals and groups. The crisis has lowered barriers to entry and made a lot of business owners desperate; and let's face it, if you're looking to get a return on your money today, you really have no good reason to trust investment bankers and other professionals. They've shown themselves to be utterly worthless as a class of humanity. But if you're dealing directly with the owner of a business, and are giving him a loan backed by his real assets - or better yet, buying a stake in the company - you're in a position to exercise your own best judgement. The very fact that you still have money to invest means your judgement is a hell of a lot more sound than that of hedge fund managers.

There are companies elsewhere doing this already, sort of, but the Vabakapital thing seems like a lot more simple, and likely to work. Mind you, it could still be either a massive scam or an epic failure, and I haven't given them any of my own money yet.

-----

Ah! you say. But who has spare cash to lend these days? Well, there's a good probability that a lot of people do, they just don't feel comfortable doing it. There's a crisis on; we might all lose our jobs; let's not spend, and definitely let's not be frivolous with our savings. The upshot is that everyone keeps their money in the bank, where it's safe, guaranteed by the state. Funnily enough, there is already some evidence of the banks - at least here in Estonia - seeking to make use out of all those deposits and pushing consumer credit again. At high rates, certainly, but still.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Th!nk Again


Eurobloggers
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Brussels itself is boring. Belgium has a fully lit motorway network, so the night-time scenery as you're landing is fantastic, but the city just feels uninspired. The hotel (with traces of grandeur, but a bit of a shithole these days) was in the vicinity of the train station, which is never good, but I stayed in the Termini region in Rome and that was far more interesting. The European Parliament building is, apparently, copyright under Belgian law - one is not allowed to reprint its likeness without paying the architect a licensee fee (and Tony Robinson, the spokesman for the Socialist group, claimed to have paid 400 Euro for the right to post on his blog a picture of the EP compound that he'd taken himself in 1983). I'd say the impression I got from the city was that the Belgians are sufficiently organized and orderly to keep it all running, but don't care enough to make it sparkle.

That sort of criticism cannot be levied on the conference itself, however. As sceptical as I am about the supposed power of the blogosphere - and even more so about the storyworthiness of the European Parliament - the gathered crowd made it an awesome experience. The organizers from the European Journalism Center were genuinely enthusiastic, and did a stupefying amount of work to bring together nearly 90 people from every member state in the EU. I now understand why people go to events such as PAX or SXSW: not necessarily for the cause and impact, but for the sheer buzz of being around so many interesting people. Some of these were bloggers, a lot were journalism students and various other activists who made an effort to get into the competition. It's difficult to describe the joy of being in a room full of individuals, where absolutely every person is guaranteed to be worth your time and attention; the ones I spent a bit more time talking to were downright fascinating.



The project will go public on Sunday, when the Th!nk About It website will begin to publish contributions. In the meantime you can check out the EJC's BloggingPortal, an aggregator of stuff on European politics with a far wider catchment area. Or you can click on the new badge in the sidebar.

Labels: , , , , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Oh, I suppose I need to talk about it.

So the Estonian courts have found Klenski, Linter, Reva and Sirõk not guilty of organizing the April riots.

Good riddance.

A lot of public figures, as well as pro-Estonian commenters, have called it a travesty and voiced their disappointment quite loudly. It was, they said, necessary to punish these four, to send a message that this kind of activity would not be tolerated.

In truth, it will be, and the country will be all the healthier for it. Those responsible for the damage and destruction - the local equivalent of white trash - have long since gotten their convictions and minor sentences. Some of them, who imagined themselves political figureheads in the making, tried to appeal and go all the way to Brussels, where nobody cared to listen to them. Which is as it ought to be.

As for these four, they are only of any interest to anyone as martyrs. There is nothing we (and I mean we as a society) could have done to destroy and humiliate them more than to provide a well-reasoned and impartial judiciary ruling of their utter irrelevance. They were on trial for organizing the most politically significant action to ever be carried out by Estonia's Russian community, or indeed by any opposition fraction whatsoever. And the court found them not credibly competent enough to have pulled it off.

We can afford to be magnanimous. We have nothing to gain from putting these men in jail. But we have certainly gained a lot from releasing them.

I do not make a habit of feeding the trolls outside a controlled environment, but observing them in the wild produces valuable insight. The court ruling produced a stunned reaction in the most hysterical corners of the Russian Internet. Oh, they still played their roles, but even those who kept regurgitating accusations of fascism on autopilot could not help but remark that such insolence against authority would never be so tolerated in the Motherland. The cognitive dissonance incurred by witnessing an application of impartial justice in what they still consider part of their mindscape was much-needed, though rare.

Of course, for the desired effect to be attained, all parties involved had to stick to their script. The fury and indignation of the coalition ensured that the court's ruling carried the necessary force. Still, I wish our politicians spent more time thinking about what they say.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 9 Comments Links to this post

Monday, December 01, 2008

When life gives you lemons,

...sell them at a ridiculously useful discount.

It's become something of a minor tradition for me to post examples of genuinely good customer service here at AnTyx, and I believe it is important, just because the overall level of service in Estonia is so shit. Lately the company I've been most impressed with is Citroen.

I used to read a lot of British car magazines, and they mentioned that Citroen became really popular in the UK, among the youth, essentially for a single reason: it would pay the buyer's insurance for the first year. And insurance for n00b drivers in the UK is ridiculously expensive. So the company is not a stranger to pleasantly practical incentive schemes.

In Estonia, they've countered suspicions of poor reliability by providing a four-year warranty (only Kia has a longer one), and free breakdown cover. Recently, as the credit crunch has halved the new car market in the country, they've gotten creative. At first they advertised their new (and actually pretty good) C5 with 0% financing, which is a bloody good deal. That one's run out now, but their new promotion might be even better: buy a new expensive-ish car until the end of the year, and they promise to cover all your financing payments until the end of 2009 and the year's KASKO comprehensive insurance payment as well. The deal includes registration and and winter tires, so presumably you'd just have to pay for the third-party insurance (which is only about 2-3k per year, depending on your driving history) and the petrol.

If I'm reading this right, it's not just a deferrment of payment - they will actually pay all the costs. Now, obviously there are points here which make the deal far less costly for them than it is practical to you - for example, if it's their own corporate financing scheme, the first year's payments would be mostly interest anyway - but this is still money that you would otherwise have to pay. On something like a decently-specced C5, including the KASKO cost, you're looking at something like 60k off, and a year to figure out how you're getting out of the crisis. Overall, that's a ridiculously good deal. Kudos.

Mind you, it might be the dealership's handiwork. The same company that sells Citroens in Estonia also does Hondas, which have had in-house financing for a few years now, to good effect. Their latest scheme is a fixed, low monthly payment on all new Civic hatchbacks, irregardless of trim level. Obviously there's a difference in the initial deposit, but you can have a really nice (and for that reason, slightly depressingly common) family hatch for only 2900 EEK per month, which is less than my '93 Mazda will end up costing me once I finally sell it.

The Honda deal's nice, but I'm mostly impressed with the Citroen one: creatively offering the buyer a discount that he will get the most value out of, rather than one that will be the easiest for the dealer.

(Disclaimer: I have not been paid for this blatant advertisement in any way, but if either Catwees or Veho Eesti would like to send me a C5 for a long-term test, I promise to be their bitch and say as many nice things about them as they require.)

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, November 09, 2008

I received a special request the other day to review Quantum of Solace, and I suppose I really ought to. I was disappointed by Casino Royale, because it portrayed 007 as human and vulnerable - which made it an excellent spook story, but a very poor Bond. On that basis, I fully expect the requestor to make an appearance in the comments section with an extended critique on the failure that is QoS, because I rather liked it.

I still don't think Daniel Craig looks comfortable in a tux, but now he seems to fulfill the promise of those steel blue eyes by learning how to play the proper Bond - not yet suave, but sufficiently nonchalante. Supremely confident and infinitely competent, he represents the presumption that keeps monarchy alive in the 21st century, that there is a need and a use for an independent moral authority. This Bond's duty is not to M. and not to the Prime Minister, but to his country and to the free world; he is the agent in Her Majesty's Secret Service, and I am not talking about MI6. Both the screenplay and Craig's performance supported the viability of the myth of Britain as a cultural export.

Quantum of Solace missed some of the core features of a 007 film - the gorgeous Aston Martin DBS was woefully under-utilized, and Q. failed to make an appearance at all, but I am only realizing that as I write this now; therefore, the film is a success. It had the visibly insane villain, part of a sinister secret organization, with a grandiose, but semi-viable plan to hold the world for ransom. It had the exotic Bond girl, with a stand-by tying into the dream of England. It had the characters of spies who stayed true to their ideals, even as others around them fell from grace. And it had action scenes that managed to be exciting without resorting to fashionable gimmicks like parkour (although I do wish they would stop with the Bourne-style shakycam photography).

It even managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the title to those who cared to look for it. So thumbs up to Quantum of Solace, and a hearty "welcome back" to Bond, James Bond.

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is it Schadenfriday yet?

"...traders may have been indirectly and inadvertently borrowing shares from Porsche, selling them to Porsche, buying them back from Porsche and then returning them to Porsche."

Quote of the day:

"None of this is currently outlawed by German authorities, but many commentators have described it as bringing German capital markets into disrepute."

Capital markets still have repute? Really?

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things I've accomplished in three days of vacation

1) Meet a new blogger - specifically Colm and his charming fiancee Eeva. Met up for lunch at the Place, where he regailed Justin and me with tales of Irishness, such as the experience of crossing the UK national border while having red hair, and the ultimate purpose of the Irish army (to guard all the weapons from being stolen by the IRA). While he objected forcefully that no Irish person has ever been known to actually utter the phrase "top o' the mornin' to ya", he does write "ye" in his emails.

2) Got excellent customer service at the New Yorker store I blogged about previously. I bought a jacket from them and the zipper broke. I was actually considering just getting a clothes repair place to put it a new zipper, but that would not have been blogworthy, so I went back to the store to complain. To my complete amazement, not only did they take the garment back (despite it being past the 14-day no-questions-asked return period - of course this was not a question of wrong size or style, but of an actual fault in its manufacture), but they gave me my money back. That's right: no dicking around with months of expert assessments and repairs, no store credit - cold, hard cash. I'm sure Mingus's worldview has just shattered.

3) Saw a couple interesting crawlspaces while prepping my team's nightgame. I might do an article about some of these prime locations after the game.

4) Shaved. I'm told I look completely different without facial hair.

Early tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a coach and buggering off on a two-week Eurotrip. Tartu to Barcelona and back again, with stops in exciting locations along the way. Stay tuned for trippin' bloggery.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

Friday, August 29, 2008

Tasku Revisited

Like it or not, the opening of the Tasku mall is the talk of Tartu and will be for a while. Being the compleat yuppie, I am not immune to its lures, and so you may have to endure further reports. In the words of a forum signature I once saw - if God is inside us all, then I sure hope he likes tacos, cause that's what he's getting.

The most significant item in Tasku's assortment is not the cinema, although that is very welcome indeed; it is the New Yorker clothes store. A chain that I have not seen in Estonia before, it occupies one of the largest spaces and differs in important ways from the Seppäläs that it ostensibly competes against.

It seems to be aimed predominantly at teenagers, which I suppose is a wise move, but also carries sizes and styles fit for an older crowd. The key to its appeal - and you will have to infer the extent of this appeal from the fact that I am writing about clothes in the first place - is a combination of very reasonable prices and fashions which are just a little bit more distinctive than what you would find elsewhere. It seems to commoditize an overall boutique aesthetic, but at a basic-casual price point. It's not entirely without competition, I've been shopping at Cartini for years, but it's new, different, and big. I walked into New Yorker after work today, and came out with a winter jacket. It's fake leather, but it's close enough, looks good on me, and cost about a fifth of what the real deal would have been even at a cheap place like Cartini. Since the only truly practical aspect of a leather jacket - the fact that it'll protect your skin if you fall of a Harley - is somewhat lost on me, I am prepared to take a chance and eating the price.

Furthermore, New Yorker brings a few new and very commendable touches to the shopping experience. I was annoyed at first to see a shortage of cashiers, but somehow the two blonde girls at the single checkout desk were managing to keep the Friday-evening crowd moving along at an acceptable clip - which is little short of stupefying for one with experiences of Hullud Päevad combat. Their shopping bags are free, and far more pleasing at a tactile level than the plastic ones at Kaubamaja; they try to avoid the expense by stressing environmental concerns, making the point that their bags are actually valuable and they would be very grateful if you brought it back for recycling the next time you stopped by Tasku. Whether that'll happen often enough is beside the point: I applaud a stimulation of that sort of mentality. And the most pleasant innovation is something no Estonian store has ever been known to do: New Yorker has a no-quips, 14-day return policy. If the garment is as-new, they'll actually give you your money back.

With the opening of this new store, Tasku and Tartu seem to have become the entry point for something which is long-overdue in this land: civilized retail.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Get Smart

It's odd to think that it has been over a year since I got my apartment - and almost two years since I made the decision and signed the papers for it. It took me quite a while to get some furniture in it, because I was picky. An artist friend came up with an idea for the interior, and putting together the correct set of furniture was nontrivial. It had to be comfortable, functional (there isn't enough space in my little studio for fanciful decoration), and above all, interesting. I've spent two decades in a Lasnamäe tower block, and I spend all day in a bland office, but I could control my environment with the apartment.

There was one bit of furniture that I was missing until yesterday. I had been using a ghetto arrangement of boxes and trays in its stead, because I just couldn't find anything worthwhile in my price range. With a bit of disposable income from a freelance job, I finally fixed that. So, since I've talked about customer service recently, I figure it's worth actually praising the companies that deliver remarkably good service.

The item of furniture itself was bought from ON24, one of many online furniture shops in Estonia. It is distinguished by a special marketing trick: if you register an account, you start accumulating a small credit - something like 25 EEK per month, and occasionally they have campaigns where you'll get a bigger chunk of credit as a one-time deal, for signing up to a newsletter or something. This credit can then be used for up to a quarter of the price of an item you're buying from the store. The point is that you sign up long before you actually start buying anything, and they get to send you targeted ads. They might sell emails to a spam list as well - I didn't check the T&Cs, and since I gave them my spam-catching email, I didn't particularly care either.

Anyway, they had the exact item I wanted. I got to save a very decent chunk of money thanks to the credit. The website said the item would be delivered within six weeks, which I more or less expected, since it was from a small Estonian manufacturer of designer furniture and it seemed logical that they would make these things to order. In the event, I got a call from them saying they got the item a month early, and could deliver it ASAP. Which was nice. Good work, ON24. Recommended.

My other recommendation is the delivery outfit, SmartPOST. These guys are setting up a country-wide network of drop boxes in malls and shopping centers. I'm guessing they are targeting e-commerce websites who are not being trusted with people's addresses, or intend to do discreet shipments. The idea is that the seller leaves a package in one of these postbox affairs, and sends you an access code by SMS. You come to the mall at your leisure, punch in the code, and the box containing your item opens up. The obvious gag here is that the service will be of particular convenience to drug dealers (you can even leave a mail-order package in the box and the customer will use his credit card to pay a set amount before the goods are released), but actually it does solve an important issue - that of delivery times.

Estonians love to shop online, that goes without saying. There are a number of home delivery services, and they are affordable enough. The problem is that they have the same business hours as anyone else. You can order your stuff to be delivered to your office, but there are any number of legitimate reasons why you might not want to do that; say, it's a bulky item that you do not want to be dragging home afterwards, or you've just ordered an inflatable dildo from eBay. Otherwise, you have to wait for the courier to call you, then rush home to pick up the package. I've done that many times, but I live in Tartu, and can get from work to home in five minutes. What if you live in Lasnamäe and work in Kopli?

Anyway, the post box network is not quite online yet, so in the meanwhile SmartPOST is acting as a regular delivery outfit. Except they're better than the competition, such as ELS or DPD. When my package arrived at their central sorting, I got an email with a link to a web form, where I could select from multiple days, and then choose whether I wanted the package in the morning, afternoon or evening. Or I could leave a plaintext message for them, explaining what time would be convenient for me. In the event I selected Monday evening, and was told the package would arrive at my home at 18:11 +- 30 minutes. Actually the courier was twenty minutes early, but waited for me to get there. And whatever the size of the package, SmartPOST will deliver it to your home - literally. Other delivery services I've used only included delivery to the front door, if you wanted help getting your couch or grand piano or whatever up the stairs you had to pay extra. These guys will, apropos of nothing, set the couch down in the room where you want to keep it.

I am not in any way affiliated with either of these companies, but they did provide remarkable customer service: good enough that I am remarking upon it. ON24: excellent response to customer inquiries (fast and to the point), and a genuinely useful customer loyalty program.

SmartPOST: rilly klevur, akshully.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dissenting Opinion

Am I the only one who thinks all the noise surrounding the Dark Knight film is over the top?

John Scalzi (who is an awesome writer btw and you should go and buy his Old Man's War books if you haven't already) has a column out where he dissects the film's Oscar chances. He makes a lot of very sensible points, both for and against, and concludes by saying that Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan (the director) will probably get their Oscars, and there will be a bunch of wins in technical nominations - but that it will not win Best Picture, because, quote, In the end, I expect giving the Best Picture to a movie about a guy in a bat suit will still be out of the mental comfort zone of the Academy.

Really? It was well within the Academy's mental comfort zone to give Best Picture to a film about a burning cunt suspended on top of a Gothic tower and a guy in spikey leather.

No, the reason why Dark Knight will not win Best Picture is because - and this is where I will ask that you hear me out before throwing various metaphorical kinds of rotten tomatoes at me - it is not an outstandingly good movie.

Not on balance.

There is absolutely no denying that The Joker was a spectacular, genre-shattering performance; this is the new gold standard of on-screen villainry and if, by some fluke of politics or mathematics, Heath Ledger will not receive a posthumous Oscar, it will be the end of the Academy, because its opinion will not be taken seriously by anyone again. Heath Ledger has had a tough time growing out of his heartthrob career (see his odd performance in Lords of Dogtown, where his character was a decrepid ruin opposed to the core cast of teenagers, producing a cognitive dissonance: Heath Ledger is suddenly old), but his Joker is absolutely phenomenal. No actor was this good in 2008; no actor has been this good in recent memory.

However, except for The Joker, what does Dark Knight really have? Batman Begins only got a single nomination for Best Cinematography, and the sequel has not actually moved the game on in any meaningful way. Christian Bale's Batman is as wooden as ever, and while he made this sort of character work really well in Equilibrium, here he has little opportunity to do that. Batman simply walks around responding passively and predictably to cues fed to him by the other characters; Bruce Wayne is better, as Bale actually manages to convey the disillusioned billionaire with a death wish. It would be entirely possible to go through the entire movie without Batman ever actually showing up. Bale gets far more screen time as Bruce Wayne anyway, and the fight scenes are your typical Hollywood choreography showcases; the fanboy audience expects a caped crusader, obviously, but if this wasn't a studio blockbuster, it might have been done as an arthouse adaptation without any footage of Batman in action at all - only scenes presumed and described by the other characters. Would not have limited Heath Ledger at all, but it would have been far more of a challenge (and accomplishment) for the director.

Aaron Eckhardt is far, far better. He's best known for Thank You for Smoking; both there and here he did an excellent job on pure, raw charisma. For two thirds of the movie I was impressed that they portrayed him as an absolute, incorruptable force for good, and the Two-Face character has merit as well; while the coin-flip plot device is long established in the Batman canon, Eckhardt somehow manages to pull off the ultimate sociopath: he is not the least bit disappointed if chance says the victim lives. He can kill you or not. Either way's good.

What he doesn't do quite as well is the transformation. Both Harvey Dent, the white knight, and Two-Face, the sword of chance, are excellent characters, but I am not convinced by the way one became the other. Two-Face's motivation could not simply be grief for his lost love and outrage at the betrayal of the corrupt policemen and inept superhero; surrendering yourself so utterly to blind luck requires true soul-searching, coming to the inevitable and logical conclusion that chance is the only thing in this universe that makes sense.

Besides all of which, longcat is looooooooong. Dark Knight feels drawn out in a way that the Lord of the Rings movies never did. They needed to pack in not only a lot of special-effects showmanship (in addition to giving Heath Ledger all the screen time he so richly deserves), but also the plot arc for a whole additional supervillain, plus the love interest - the latter felt like an afterthought with a strong Spiderman influence, which is absolutely not a compliment.

What else? The cinematography? It's good, but the long-established Gotham aesthetic readily lends itself to breathtaking backgrounds and haunting details. It'd almost be more effort to get it wrong.

The upshot is that Dark Knight is an excellent film, well worth the ticket price to go and see on the big screen (your home theatre would do it an injustice); but it is surrounded by an inordinate amount of hype. Heath Ledger's performance deserves all the hype it is getting, and more; but it does set a standard for the film's other components that they just do not live up to. Ledger is the best actor in 2008; Dark Knight simply is not the year's best film.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 11 Comments Links to this post

Gremlins from the Kremlin



Cute. I think I'll steal it. :)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Friday, June 20, 2008

In Defense of the Snail Tower

Everybody who either lives in Tartu or spends any significant time here has an opinion on Tigutorn, the big new residential tower next to the bus terminal. These opinions are overwhelmingly negative: people find it ugly, pointless and contrived.

I, however, rather like the Snail Tower. I like it because it's distinctive; and in this day and age, that is the best we can expect from modern architecture. I've been thinking about this, and I honestly cannot name a single late 20th/early 21st century building that would be intrinsically beautiful. The Gherkin in London, the Burj al Arab in Dubai, the Taipei 101 - they are all, at best, impressive. I've seen a fair share of modern highrises, and the closest that have come to beauty have been the skyscrapers of San Diego; the last great architect to create properly beautiful buildings was Gaudi. Today's architecture, liberated by high-tensile steel and pre-stressed concrete and allowed to separate structure from form, creates airy and minimalist works of flowing glass and basic shapes. That's interesting, but it's not beautiful.

Look at the new business district of Tallinn: the SEB and Swissotel towers, the City Plaza, even the Radisson - they are merely reflective boxes. They're inoffensive, but they are not special; they could just as easily fit into La Defense or Ramat Gan. The distinctive feature of the Tallinn cityscape is still the Oleviste and Niguliste spires, and maybe the Long Hermann. Every city with an identity worth a damn needs to have an architectural symbol, but most of them have quite a dull skyline. I've seen London from the top of the LDA brick and the South Bank in the sunset; it's distinguished by St. Paul's, which is a generic gray dome that could exist anywhere, and the Gherkin. I've seen Paris from the Sacre Coeur vantage point, and all it has is a single black obelisk in the middle.

The Snail Tower fulfills the fundamental criterion of a successful distinctive building: a five-year-old can draw it, and it will be unmistakable. It is not beautiful; but then neither is the square of the Grand Arche. It is a white cylinder devoid of deep meaning, but that's what makes it a perfect symbol for Tartu: we get to build up the meaning ourselves. The Eiffel Tower has no more intrinsic semantic value than the Snail Tower; it represents the spirit of Paris because it is distinctive and memorable, and associated with the values that people love about the city. In the same way, we can make the Tigutorn a distinctive representation of the City of Good Thoughts. You can't do that with Pläsku.


Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 9 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Making a Difference

A friend found with some surprise that he had some money coming to him: a microloan that he made to someone in Equador had been repaid.

I shrugged, had a look at the website, and ended up making a loan to a blacksmith from Peru. I've read some things about the Grameen Bank and similar projects, and they've always made a lot of sense to me. I've been wrangling with Paypal today anyway to buy a case for the Mininote from eBay, so the website was a convenient way to contribute.

It's $25; the sort of money I might spent in a mediocre night out. For that sum, I get to feel good about myself: I'm making a difference, doing something unequivocally Good, and doing it in the most practical way possible.

This isn't charity, which I vaguely dislike (although I did send money to tsunami victims - because it was conveniently arranged by the Internet banking website). It's providing a loan for entrepreneurs, money they will use to buy materials and tools to improve their ability to do business and provide for themselves - and they'll pay it back after a fixed period. This is not feeding a Third World addiction - it is the bleedingly obvious upside of globalization.

This country has gone from a postsoviet wreck to a Nordic tiger in two decades, ultimately thanks to foreign capital that allowed us to earn good money for hard work. It is the moral obligation of everyone in Estonia, and everyone who has ever received help from others, to support projects like microloans.

Go to kiva.org, give someone a loan of twenty-five bucks, then come back here and sound off in the comments, so I can tell you how much you rule.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 10 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, May 29, 2008

...meanwhile, PayPal seems to fully support Baltic accounts now, in that it's possible to receive money, and withdraw it as well (for a fairly reasonable flat 2 Euro fee).

Which is nice.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sing Praises

I'm a blogger, and thus, by definition, a critic - but I do try to be constructive, and I take real pleasure in praising a job well done. In the spirit of that, I have had some really, really good experiences with zebra.ee - an Estonian online shop selling all sorts of electronic bits. I've used them before to buy an Xbox 360 wireless controller (for my gaming PC, natch - allows me to get the most out of my big LCD TV and my awesome red leather couch), and they did a great job. Their main line of work is small-wholesale sales to corporate IT divisions, but their website does allow single item purchases fulfilled directly by GNT, the big warehouse that brings most electronic components into Estonia and serves a lot of the retail shops.

So now, I have a new toy. Retail price for this is at least 4000 eek, and that's at the house of ill repute that is K-Arvutisalong. Zebra.ee sold it to me for 3260 eek, including delivery to my door in Tartu the next morning. Brilliant.

Now you lot, who are reading this blog, will need to suggest cool destinations for the new gadget. ;)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Europe's Marshall Plan

Via Postimees comes news of a project devised by Poland and Sweden to create a loose affiliation between the EU and five nearby states: Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Eastern Partnership would involve visa-free travel, free trade, and the very voluminous umbrella term of "strategic partnerships".

Brilliant. This is the first truly plausible and useful act of EU foreign policy that I've seen. Edward Lucas ought to be extatic: weary of Russian and Iranian sabre-rattling and back-room negotiations over contested membership plans, the EU begins to play sphere-of-influence games unashamedly. The EP has already received support from Britain, Germany and the Netherlands; France is expected to play along in return for approval for its own similar project in the Mediterranean and North Africa. That will also bring support from Spain and Italy.

The beauty of the EP and MU projects is that they return to the core values and competence of the European Union: economical rather than political; practical. They offer the affiliate countries the benefits of the rich, powerful, clever, established force that is Europe, without the restrictions of membership - and often those simply cannot be implemented in adjoining states even with the best of goodwill - and without the finality of taking sides, either against Russia or against the extreme bits of the Middle East. Poland, the dreadnought of New Europe, is expected to take the lead in incorporating the leftover bits of the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe and the North Caucasus, while France has taken it upon itself to spearhead the EU's expansion of influence into near Arab territories, where it has a presence and a history. (While its colonial past might bother some in North Africa, France has been the neutral party in Middle Eastern affairs since the middle of the 20th century.)

The EP/MU initiative allows Europe to pursue its interests on the south-eastern bearing without getting bogged down in the quagmire of politics and offense; it will be playing against the other major entities in the region on its strengths. There is a lot for Eurocrats to get wrong here, but if they succeed, it will assert the EU not only as a common force, but undeniably as a new world superpower.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 5 Comments Links to this post

Friday, May 16, 2008

In every port in the world...

you will find Estonian beer.



I'm sure Mozambique has a port...

A somewhat odd brand, created for export by Tartu's A. Le Coq (hence the signature pyramid bottles) and completely unaffiliated with the Wiru Õlu factory. The latter were quite good sports about it actually, saying they didn't mind - it was just free advertising for them.

I still remember the cognitive dissonance of seeing a bottle of Türi Vodka in a San Diego supermarket - at a price far exceeding the familiar output of its middling Estonian manufacturer.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Two Revolutions

I expect I'm the last Estonian blogger to mention something about the Laulev Revolutsioon film. I kept putting off seeing it, despite all the publicity and good reviews; I finally got the DVD when it came on sale in the supermarkets. Yes, I actually paid my 12 Euro for it.

The story told by the film is one that needs to be told, and I think I'd say that even if I had nothing to do with Estonia. It is a story of success, and an inspiration for anyone. Discussions of the Soviet Union's demise can take up a few blogs' worth of space on their own - the arms race spendathon, the Afghanistan war, the Warsaw Pact's obligation for financial assistance to Communist bloc states, etc. - but none of that diminishes the accomplishment of the Baltic states. There is an old short story, by someone famous I'm sure, about hunting dogs - how a pack of ferocious wolfhounds needs a single pitbull. When they have a wolf surrounded, the dogs know he's doomed - but none of them will attack, because the first dog to make a move will get badly hurt. So they need the single little pitbull, who is no match for the giant wolf, but he has no fear; he'll jump in first and distract the beast, so the hounds can finish the job. In the same way a decrepid empire can last for a long time, surrounded by hesitant enemies, until one brave soul goes for the throat.

The Singing Revolution, a film made by American expats, goes a long way to explaining the nature of Estonia's independence to people who might not have known much about it. In that, it serves a very important purpose; however, I could not help but feel that it was a bit shallow. It went into some detail about the actual mechanics of restoring the independence and the relationship between local and Moscow authorities; but not quite enough. There is a remarkable special, about an hour long, that was broadcast on the Kalev TV channel, which showed the process in great detail, and I seriously recommend it to anyone interested in politics, statesmanship and negotiations. (If any readers know the name of that film or can provide a link, I'd be very grateful.)

The other side of the story is the spirit. And here too there is a better example. The Tustys actually struck a very good balance for a film aimed at foreigners - they couldn't make it too intense, or it would throw off the audience. But if you're really interested in the sort of feeling that fuels a singing revolution, you need to watch the Revolution of Pigs.

There have been a number of big movie productions in Estonia in the decade. An interesting aspect is that the posh ones fail. The most painful Estonian movie in recent memory has been We Will Not Sleep Tonight, featuring a load of individual talent mixed together to create ninety minutes of wank. Fortunately, that same year it had an antithesis: a film made completely by amateurs, on pure enthusiasm and love of the art. With actors selected from an open casting call of regular schoolkids, and a crew that completely lacked pretension, they made something absolutely remarkable - a movie that was true.

Sigade Revolutsioon is actually based on a true story - the rebellion of a camp of teenagers in the 80s, bussed out to the countryside ostensibly for work duties. The film shows how the kids, apprehensive about their future, scared of conscription into the Soviet Army to go and die in Afghanistan, and tired of the bullshit spewed by their loyal Communist elders, decide to stop obeying the great machine. The beauty of the film is in the details, but the importance is in the story. The actual uprising of 1986 probably didn't quite happen like that, and the film does not furnish a happy ending; the Soviet Union is still stronger than any individual. But these kids look and feel real, and you know that five years from now, they will be at the foot of Tallinn's TV tower, standing together in front of the armoured combat vehicles of the Pskov Airborne Division. Our world's true heroes are the ones who will stare down the barrel of a gun unarmed, and say to the soldier who could murder them by the thousands: You Shall Not Pass.

The whole world knows the recipe - and effectiveness - of Mahatma Ghandi's revolution: first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win. The problem with a Ghandi-style revolution is that you need a Ghandi to do it. The greatest message that you need to receive from these two films is that it was done by regular people. There was no Last Action Hero here, no Neo, and no V. The pitbull that went for the wolf's throat was an ugly little bastard. For all of its tanks, missiles and KGB firing squads, the Soviet Union was brought to its knees by a bunch of bearded geeks who simply said no.

Every country needs a revolution like that.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Estonian Healthcare - Redux & Personal

I've written before about Estonian healthcare - how it's considered crap, though probably undeservedly. Of course, it is difficult to pass judgement on a system that you've only ever used for trivial matters. I've had major surgery when I was very young, but that was still in the Soviet times and I remember nothing of it. Otherwise I never had cause to avail myself of Estonia's hospitals for anything more serious than an adenoid removal, which took half a day and resulted in as much ice cream as I could eat; not a complete waste, then. A couple of years ago I got into a fairly impressive car accident, was ambulanced to Tallinn and checked over at the ER; I was sent home the same evening with some stitches and a concussion. That was luck. But in 2008, I've been deliberate.

I'm a big guy. Always have been. I'd resigned myself to being fat for the rest of my life; and then I decided I was going to do something about it. The key factor was the appearance of bariatric surgeons in Estonia; but the turning point was late last fall, after I'd been swimming regularly, three times a week, for about half a year. I was feeling a lot better and gaining muscle mass, but not really losing much weight. My last bit of self-deception - that I could get into shape through diet and exercise - fell away: there is no way I will ever have the sort of self-discipline for the sort of massive weight loss I need. There are people in the world who've done it, and I have the greatest respect for them, but that's not me. Growing up fat meant a lot of confidence issues; Antyx readers will recognize that confidence is not something I have a problem with. The way I did was to stop hating myself. Self-discipline on the order required to go from the clinical definition of morbidly obese to more or less normal would have to stem from a burning hate for my own body; and that is not a choice I am prepared to make. Even if it kills me.

Fortunately, I now have the opportunity to cheat; to achieve the result while bypassing the part that makes it so difficult for me. Not that the cheat itself is particularly simple, but it's something I can do. There are surgeons in Estonia who do the operations that result - reliably - in radical weight loss; I am still young and have most of my health; and I can afford the surgery. I'm paying a little over two thousand Euro for it, which isn't a lot. Thanks to the Estonian healthcare system.

My first move was at the end of 2007, when I saw my GP (or rather one of the GPs sharing a pool of patients) for a severe sore throat. I got a week's bedrest and a referral to an endocrynologist - a specialist on metabolism. Since this was not an urgent matter, I got put in the back of the queue; a little over a month till my visit.

When the time came, it was all remarkably efficient. I paid 50 EEK (3 Euro and change) for the initial visit. The doctor ran a bunch of tests, some that afternoon, the rest on the next morning. A week later I got the results, with commentary, and some research on the state of bariatric surgery in Estonia. The doc confirmed the diagnosis I'd known already: hyperinsulinemia, the most remarkable thing about which is that it is not diabetes. What it does do is cause an appetite disproportional to consumption. By this time I'd recognized that I eat more than most people; but I do it without really thinking about it. It's the difference between hunger and appetite, and it's something that ought to be fixed well by an operation that constricts the volume of the stomach. The endocrynologist gave the go-ahead.

I then contacted the surgeon, from a Tallinn private practice. It took a while to set up a visit, and when I did travel to the capital, it turned out that he was in surgery; apparently he actually works as a gastric surgeon on the staff of Tallinn's regional hospital as well. Fair enough, really; but what I did find out was that the metabolism workup was not sufficient. I'd also need to be cleared by a gastroenterologist. Fortunately, I could do that in Tartu.

This time I didn't feel like waiting a month, so I cheated. I paid the university hospital for an unreferred visit to a specialist doc. My 300 EEK (20 Euro) got me a time within two business days of putting in the request on the hospital's website. Since I did actually have national health insurance, that was all I paid; the ultrasound, gastroscopy and doctor's consult were all free. The GE was one of those old doctors that somehow instill tremendous trust. (I've never been afraid of docs, not even of needles when I was very little; an old relative that died before my birth had been something important in Estonian medicine, so all through my childhood various doctors had been very pleased to meet an heir to that family. Comes with having an uncommon last name.) She gave me the OK, and mentioned what she knew about the bariatrics in Tallinn; some 70 surgeries had been performed successfully there.

Most of those were of the really hardcore kind. There are three types of surgery available, and the most radical one is an actual bypass, where the patient's guts are rerouted. (Curiously enough, since it's purely surgical and does not involve any medical gadgets, it gets paid for in full by the national health insurance.) The least invasive type is the gastric balloon, which they insert through a tube down your throat - but it stays there for no more than 6 months, and I needed a longer-lasting effect than that. So I'm getting a lap band - a sort of belt that gets tied around the top part of the stomach. The upshot is that very little food can actually fit in there, so I can't overeat - and apparently most of the nerve endings are at the top of the stomach, so I constantly feel really full. It's not a magic pill, but it's been around for decades, and it seems to really work.

The great thing about the lap band surgery is that they're not cutting any internal organs - just adding a new bit. Sounds safer than removing an appendix.

Today, after my extended three-day birthday celebrations involving cake and a last Chateubriand stake from the Crepp meatery, I weigh 149.8kg. My surgery is on Wednesday. I'm about to put my gut where my blogging finger is.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 7 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Night Game

Just outside the official border of Tallinn, there is a sideroad leading up to a handful of old, wrecked houses. They look vaguely military, one-floor brick jobs, long - like troop quarters. There isn't anything inside now, just the shell; except for the one that has a low stone border in the middle of the floor. Look inside this border, and you will see steps, leading down to a hatch. Go inside, and you may be surprised that the cellar doesn't end quite where you'd expect it to. In fact, the corridor keeps going. And going. Before you know it, you're three or four staircases down into the ground. Take the right route, and you'll eventually see the walls change from concrete to brickwork - progressively older. Some of these tunnels may just have been here since the time of Peter the Great.

They say there's a right tunnel you can find, but it's easier to head back out and walk a little out into the fields, where large mounds appear somewhat uncharacteristic of the Estonian countryside. Here and there you will find entrances, low doors framed in massive concrete. Go inside one of these, and you will find yourself inside more passages. Go far enough, and you will find a massive hall, semi-cylindrical, with gigantic reinforced ribs maintaining the curvature. This hall is easily tens of meters tall - three floors at least, with plenty of headroom on each one. There is nothing there now but dirt and rubbish and the occasional faded stencil on the wall - but a few decades ago, this was the secondary command post for the air defense forces of the Soviet Union's northwest corner. As impressive as this bunker may be, it was designed as the light alternative - built to withstand only relatively simple airborne attacks. They say the real control bunker, built for far more serious ordnance, is elsewhere.

On at least one of the hatches leading down into the bunker, you will find an arrow, with the letters DR next to it. Inside, if you look hard enough, you will find six sequences of digits, all starting with the same number - I think it was 13 - and all with the letters D and R in them.

You'll find these sequences all over the forlorn industrial sites of Tallinn.

The Dozor Night Game came from Russia, and the its name has the same roots as the Nochnoi Dozor activist group - a fantasy book by a prominent contemporary Russian author. But it has nothing to do with the Night Watch.

The Dozor Night Game and other similar projects have grown out of games that have been played for centuries; and certainly after the fall of the Soviet Union every young boy (and a surprising share of girls) all over its former territory went crawling around crumbling industrial parks. But the advent of modern technology - mobile phones, GPS, and the ubiquity of information on the Internet - has taken a pastime and turned it into a sport.

Every other Saturday night, a dozen or so people gather in a cafe in downtown Tallinn. They are there to hand over a piece of paper and a wad of cash to the host; the man who is entrusted by Dozor's central powers to run the game in this city. A few hours later, each of these visitors will be at the head of a crew of between five and fifty, with multiple cars positioned strategically throughout the city. Somewhere in an apartment or an all-night coffee shop with good WiFi, a handful of people per team are assembled around their computers. Their job is to put their minds to work, figuring out the riddles that conceal the location of the codes. Once a location has been found and confirmed, the closest car speeds through the night, full of people with ridiculously good flashlights. They know from the riddle if they'll need to look for the code at ground level or if it's concealed, but most of them hoping for Danger Level 3+. That means they can get seriously hurt trying to get to the code. But it also means they are heading somewhere really cool.

I'd heard about Dozor-style games in Russia, but it was through a friend that I started playing. Did a stint in the field, and decided I was far more use at the HQ - solving the riddles and talking to the host via IM, trying to squeeze out any clue or confirmation I can. The good thing is that I can do it from Tartu; all I need is a computer, a phone, and an Internet connection. And a brain.

I first started playing in the late fall, and have barely missed a game since. Between Tallinn and then Tartu, I play most weekends. This is significant, because normally there would be no way anything would hold my attention for that long. My team in Tartu is ranked top, but the team I play with in Tallinn - where the competition is far more difficult - doesn't win often. I don't do this for achievement, and I don't do this for money - although the winner does get a significant chunk of the entry fees. I do it because this combination of scavenger hunt, orienteering, geocashing, and the occasional downtown LARP to entertain a random audience, is in many ways the ultimate game. We don't break into private property; in fact a core rule of all these games is that all tasks can be performed within the boundaries of both the criminal and the traffic laws. But otherwise, this is a combination of GTA, Stalker, and a good few Spiderman games (plus a bitchin' IQ test for the headquarters), played out in real life.

Next weekend, on the anniversary of the Bronze Soldier riots, I will be in Tallinn. My team is finally getting to put a game together, find the right locations, make up the riddles, and create the performances. The theme is Dumas-style France; so if you see some random people in feathered hats and Musketeer cloaks running around town, don't be alarmed.

It's only the best game in town.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Do Want, Vol. 3

So the HP 2133 has more or less launched, and the reviews have been trickling in. I'm fairly certain now that it's the one I want. It falls down on two things only: the CPU is a bit shit, and the bigger battery makes it bulky and irregular-shaped. To be honest, I can live with it; and the early reviews as well as the announcement of UK availability has answered a very important question. Yes, there will be versions with Win XP. This means that I can easily go for the cheap 1gb RAM version with the slower hard drive, as I have spent four years with a Duron 1300, on 128mb RAM, running XP Pro, and I even played games on it. NFS Porsche Unleashed and GTA 2 (I still hold that GTA 2 was by far the funniest and most creative one of the entire series).

The new 9-inch Asus is comparatively far inferior. It's a little bit narrower, but has a much smaller keyboard, worse speakers, worse screen resolution, and inadequate storage at best (up to 20gb on the fancier versions, compared to 120gb or 160gb on the Hewlett-Packard). Supposedly the Asus will have a touchscreen and/or Apple-style gesture touchpad and/or built-in GPS, but I'm not quite as impressed by those as I am by a half-decent keyboard. Also, it seems that Asus has dumped its one unassailable advantage, by choosing not to ship with Atom processors in the beginning. I'm sure it's a smart business decision for Asus, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the HP. It's also prettier.

I've also had a chance to finger a MacBook Air at the Apple shop here in Tartu. It's nice, and I'd give it more serious consideration if it didn't cost over $2200 in basic spec.

-----
Bonus story: the weirdest thing I've heard in a very, very fucking long time - Tanel Padar's 'Welcome to Estonia' (cover of James Brown's 'Living in America') sung in Russian. Reinars Kaupers, the guy from Brainstorm (who I saw live in Tartu on April fucking 28th last year, and who are brilliant) uses his soft Baltic accent to great effect in Russian; Tanel Padar just sucks completely.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Diene at it againe...

Postimees gloats that Doudou Diène, the UN's racism envoy, has presented his long-awaited report on Estonia today, at a UN session in Geneva.

In his report, mr. Diene, remembered for coming to Estonia last year, accusing us of racial discrimination and telling us to make Russian a state language, recognizes the great work of Estonia's political leadership and government institutions in promoting tolerance and human rights.

His report apparently recognizes the controversial nature of the Soviet legacy in Estonia, and urges us to resolve the issues through a consistent integration policy and social dialogue. The report also calls for a solution to the problem of stateless persons.

The official UN press release is not quite as celebratory, obviously (Ctrl+F and search for 'Estonia'). I wonder what the actual report states.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Monday, March 17, 2008

Awesome

Ad for a free WiFi network - "available here!" - on the back of the toilet cubicle door in the hotel Olümpia's conference center.

Got a minute all to yourself? Why not surf the Net!

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Friday, March 07, 2008

Victim of Advertising

Around this time last year I blogged about summer vacations, and how I bought tickets to London and from Berlin, two weeks apart. Here's what came of it.

Today, I was browsing the Postimees website and clicked on a banner for Estonian Air. Long story short - got tickets to Rome and back, for a week in July. Suggestions for sightseeing and cheap accomodation? I'm tempted to take the train out to Florence and Venice...

Also, two and a half years on - I'm going back to Bollnäs! Also an Estonian Air thing this time, the Tallink ferry is both slow and really fucking expensive. It's cheaper to get a hotel package - one night in Stockholm - than a cruise, never mind individual tickets. So it's a whirlwind round trip this time, a day and a half away from Estonia in total.

Got a big article, but I'm letting Baltlantis get a crack at it first, so stay tuned...

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Estonia's Ugliest Computer

A campaign by a local weekly, to find the ugliest machine in IT wonderland Estonia. Winners get a couple of posh new HP laptops.

This one for example was put on a hot stove, out of the reach of little kids, who nevertheless managed to turn the hotplate on. :) Melted (and exploded) battery, half the RAM gone, but it still runs!

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poignant



Wahaahahahahhaahaaa. :D

Anyway... other template wasn't working, so back to this one. Did I get everyone in the blogroll? If you have a blog in English that is more or less themed on Estonia - or you know of one - leave a link in the comments.

Big, relevant article coming soon, possibly in the form of a link to a slightly more authentic-looking publication.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 5 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Resolution


On Wed, 23 Jan 2008 01:00:26 +0200, Pamela Statz wrote:
>
> I sincerely apologize for the traffic you received over the weekend. The
> writer, David Kushner, is not to blame - I am. It was wrong for me to
> have
> embedded an iframe to a page on your site without getting permission. All
> links to antyx.net have been removed from the story and sidebar.
>
> Pam Statz
>

Apologies accepted. :) I've restored the McKinstry archive.

-A.



6,258 hits on the blog - in the two hours that the redirect was in place!



And my website traffic over the entire debacle:



Oh well, at least I got on the front page of Reddit!

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Heh.

The inimitable master Janus comes through in a pinch for more traffic still.

I don't have a Google AdSense account on hand, otherwise I'd put the ads on there, to be quite honest.

Meanwhile, the best I can do to monetize is to tell you that I do technical writing/user documentation as a freelancer, and if you need some nice manuals or help files done, email's in the sidebar.

Wonder how long till Wired strips the article...

EDIT: The iFrame is gone. Hopefully my traffic will get back to normal now.

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, January 03, 2008

You go, Rein!

Remember the blue laws? The ban on sales of alcohol in Tallinn after 8pm?

The entire idea is now being challenged by the Justice Minister, as unconstitutional. Freedom of enterprise is protected. Alcohol is not a banned substance, so the right of local councils to restrict trade in alcohol is iffy.

The JM has made a statement to this effect to the Minister for Economic Affairs, who is none other than former PM and Res Publica leader Juhan Parts. The MEA tried to introduce a bill that would ban alcohol sales between 11pm and 8am across the country; the Justice Ministry refused to sign off on it.

Now, I have no great love for Rein Land, I think he's a bit of a blowhard. (Then again, I'm not that big a fan of Parts either.) But in this case I admire what he is doing, even if he might have an ulterior political agenda to show the IRL camp its place.

By far the biggest problem in Estonian politics today is loss of vision, drive and confidence. The fifteen-year miracle of this country was based on a shared understanding that there was a best way to do things, and this way was to give people as much freedom as reasonably possible. It was this implicit trust in competence and common sense that allowed us to pull off something which most people said could not be done - and most people in other communities still say is impossible.

Estonian politics has consolidated into a few large parties, who are trying hard to come up with an actual platform. With Rahvaliit effectively discontinued, and Keskerakond unlikely to survive the next round of elections (and flailing about in embarassing ways as a result), the two big coalition parties are trying to resort to rhetoric.

For IRL, this means suddenly remembering that they are the conservative, right-wing party. While the Isamaa bit has primarily been about patriotism, the Res Publica bit seems to have decided that now they are going to be the defenders of family values, temperance, and unless we're all very careful, God.

This is deplorable. The unique working amalgam of positions that makes Estonia what it is requires us to be conservative in economic matters, but liberal in social ones. If Res Publica are now going to go start taking pages out of the US Republican book (and all the wannabe Repubs in Canada, Australia, etc.), then Parts needs to be taken out back and given what Mr. Bridger called "a right talking to".

If Reform starts to take its formal rhetoric seriously again, that's fine; they are officially the bunch that keeps the economy running and doesn't particularly bother with third-rail type issues. I don't really believe that's going to happen, but irrespective of all that...

For Rein Lang to come out and tell Parts and the prudes to stop it, because such a restriction of free enterprise is not the Estonian way - to bring back that level of discourse - is extremely admirable, and I wish him luck in his endeavours.

(Holiday positivity bonus: more babies were born in Tartu last year than people died.)

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 15 Comments Links to this post

Friday, December 07, 2007

Estonian Education in "Not Completely Shit" Shocker

So, this is old news, but it's worth mentioning.

Apparently there was a test of science proficiency among 15-year-old schoolkids, and Estonia scored quite well. Fifth place overall, second place in general achievement (how good the entire student body is on average). The test was conducted by the OECD, which is a fairly credible organization, and nearly 5000 kids from Estonia took part, so it's representative.

Which is nice. I've been asked about education in the comments to a previous post, and I genuinely believe it is the most important long-term issue for the country. We have some natural resources we can use in a clever way (the timber, and the shale), and there's always the tourist industry, but first and foremost Estonia is a knowledge economy. We have great software developers, we have a great biotech scene, and we have great engineers coming up with stuff like ultra-smart fabrics for skiing jackets. That's what will keep us going and make us rich in Europe. Estonia has been such a success story because we got to start from scratch in 1991, but it's not just that: everyone east of Vienna started from scratch in 1991. We were simply very clever about it. That cleverness, the ability to find the best solution and implement it, ignoring all the reasons why it probably won't work, is what makes this country great.

To keep it up, we need lots of highly skilled specialists, and therefore lots of very good education. We already have completely tuition-free university education for the top performers, but we need to expand on that. I don't have a well thought-out Antyx Fix for you right now, but my first thought is to give the University of Tartu more money to take in more kids, and let it reinstitute entrance exams, so the faculty can have more control over the quality of students they accept. (Right now university entrance is based on a bell curve number calculated from high school graduation exams.) So yeah, let's keep up the good work.

But there is an interesting point here. Russophone kids scored demonstrably worse in the OECD test than the ones in Estonian-speaking schools. This is ever so slightly counter-intuitive. Back when I was in high school - which wasn't all that long ago, after all! - we still used Soviet textbooks for a lot of the science courses. This is fine; the laws of the universe don't really change over time, and the superiority of physics & chemistry education in the Soviet curriculum was unassailable. The SU really did teach kids a lot more science than the West did.

You would think that the Russian books and especially the Russian teachers, trained in the old Soviet system, would produce quite good results. And yet, they don't.

The Education Minister, Tõnis Lukas, suggests that this happened because the Estonian teachers have had more opportunity for further training and raising their own skill levels. Teachers from Russian schools, who don't speak Estonian all that well, would not have the same opportunities. But hold on, this is science; surely all the training materials would be in English anyway? And in that case there shouldn't be a difference?

Maybe there is. Maybe the older teachers, the ones who learned their trade in the Soviet days, the ones who have been teaching physics for thirty years - they can't learn English any more than they learn Estonian. Can't or won't. Maybe the general sense of pessimism has gotten the better of them, and they really can't be bothered making an effort any more. Maybe.

In any case, it does rather put a new twist on the old Russian-schools issue. We're told that the kids would have too hard a time learning science in Estonian, with confusing terminology and such. But if they're doing badly learning it in their native tongue, and the gap clearly correlates with language, don't we owe it to the future generations to make sure they get the best education - in Estonian - they possibly can?

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 12 Comments Links to this post

Friday, November 30, 2007

Fail



The nice folks retrieving the grand fir that will be Tartu's central Christmas tree this year... well, let's just say, they can has fail.

(Original image from Postimees.)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thursday nights in Tartu...


Plugging a mate's band - but hey, I'll be there myself. ;) Still, scary memories of Thursday night drinking. Last time I did that seriously, it was the week before Summer Solstice. A British friend had some of his friends over for the celebrations. One of them had apparently just had a streak of very good luck with his business, and appeased the gods by going to the ATM, punching a random button and insisting that he would spend all the money the machine gave him on vodka & Red Bull for everyone that night. Silly limey got 5000 EEK (£200 and change). After a long pub crawl involving Kissing Students, Rasputin (which refused to serve us any food except gherkins, so we just had more vodka), the Atlantis nightclub ("...but you don't understand - men like cheap sluts!" - a fine justification to present to one's girlfriend) and invariably Zavood, I got home around 4am, woke up at 8 and made a brave attempt to walk to work. I made it as far as the petrol station next to my house, where I proceeded to imbibe a large quantity of Nestea green tea and wait for a cab. Normally I take pride in being able to maintain some level of functionality with a hangover, but this was too much for me. I crashed onto the couch in the office and slept until 3pm. I respectfully posit to you, sir, that it was not the drinking that did me in, but the lack of a full night's rest.

Mind you, the last Helena Nova gig in Tartu started with half a liter of vodka's worth of Screwdrivers and ended in Krooks. But that wasn't a Thursday.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Monday, November 12, 2007

300th Post!

W00t!

I sincerely hope there's nobody anal enough to count them, because Blogger's dashboard might actually also count the ones that are still in draft stage, in which case this is not the 300th post published on AnTyx. But let's just pretend it is, anyway.

Days like today is why I own a car in Tartu. I live alone, and I'm within half an hour's walking distance of my downtown office, which is doable even in the freezing winter months. I'm now much more conveniently serviced by public transport than at my previous rental apartment. It would definitely be cheaper to take the bus than drive around, usually alone, in my relatively enormous '93 Mazda 626 liftback, which consumes about 15l/100km in Tartu urban driving, because I only do about 70km on my tiny commute, in traffic, and it always runs cold. I now need to buy winter tires for it, then find out what I need to fix up for the MoT coming in December, and insurance runs out in early January (when I'll have owned the same car for a full year - OMG!). It's a really expensive proposition.

But on days like today, when it's snowing with a cold wind, and it's dark, and slippery, and generally unpleasant - it is an indescribable pleasure to scrape the ice off your windshield (takes longer than the actual drive home), get inside, put the heater on full, turn on the stereo, and carefully inch along the treacherous streets to the wail of the over-revving engine and the cricket staccato of the ABS brakes, driving past the poor, miserable bastards waiting for the bus.

Worth every penny.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Saturday, November 10, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Võru

South Estonia, especially Võru county, is a place hiding many interesting things - and many interesting people. There is a Barclay Hotel in Tartu, named after Barclay de Tolli, the Russian army general from the Napoleon wars. It is located in the building which, in the Soviet days, used to house the headquarters of the South Estonian Military District. The presidential suite of the hotel used to be the office of the district commander - one Djohar Dudaev, later on the first president of rebellious Chechnya.

There's also an urban legend about nukes in Võru. I thought it was improbable, myself - strategic munitions so close to the Western border - even though the Raadi airfield near Tartu was designated as an emergency strip for Soviet nuclear bombers. But stranger things have happened. Below is an account by a friend who grew up in Võru county.


There were as many as eight Soviet military objects in Võru county: a surveillance station in Meremäe, a communications unit in Mõniste, missile bases in Sänna and Nursi, firing ranges in Nursi and Kubija, an airport in Ridali and another missile base in Palometsa.

Nursi and Sänna were the nuclear missile sites. In Sänna, at least one of the cupolas of the underground launching silos should still be there, although access to the base is restricted now. Both bases stored intermediate-range ballistic missiles - R-12/SS-4 - targeted to cities in Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Norway. The R-12 Dvina missiles were exactly like the ones deployed to Cuba in 1962.

A missile was actually fired to Novaya Zemlya once from the Sänna base, without the nuclear warhead, supposedly, but this fact has nevertheless a highly gasp-inducing factor.

The missiles were removed from Sänna and Nursi around 1988-89, although yeah, there are all sorts of stories about how some of them were left behind, hidden away with other weaponry. Around 1999 people became sort of paranoid about some supposed secret storage facilities...

When the missiles were gone, most of the Russians living at the bases quietly left as well, and local farmers couldn't have been happier. They explored the sites and brought all kinds of stuff home with them and used it in their households. Some barracks were never restored either, and roughly about 6-7 years ago, some local schoolboys went to Nursipalu and brought with them a huge glass jar filled with mercury, which was stored under a layer of petroleum. The word is that those glass jars were in abundance there. I wonder what these were used for.

Another interesting fact is that although the nuclear parts of the warheads were removed a long time ago (some warheads still remained, but without the radioactive stuff - some local farmers have made use of these as bee-hives, actually), they are still conducting radioactivity surveys regularly, the last one was apparently in 2001-2002.

As far as the urban legends go, people do talk about the high incidence of leukemia in Nursi.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 8 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gold & Green


Gold & Green
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Taken just outside my house this afternoon.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

It's September 22nd; not only is it the Day of Atonement, but also the day when Soviet forces entered Tallinn back in 1944. The day when shit is expected to hit the fan. Things seem to be quiet in Tallinn - the WWII veterans, along with Russian and Belorussian embassy officials attended a somber flower-laying ceremony at the military cemetery where the Bronze Soldier is now located. Ahead of today, Klenski was officially banned from - well, breathing, really. There's another Nashi protest in Moscow, but that's not news.

In a celebration of today's utter un-newsworthiness, here's a post about something completely apolitical.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, has a famous essay describing to Americans the proper way to make tea. Here's the article, if you haven't read it or don't remember it well. Master Adams makes a few very good points, the central of which is that people who don't think tea is a wonderful drink have simply not had a good cup of tea. However, he makes use of several cornerstones of the British understanding of tea which are utterly misguided and impede the proper enjoyment of the noble drink.

Earl Gray. It's very British - it is, after all, named after an earl - but it is not tea proper. Earl Gray is flavoured, the tea mixed with an aromatic oil. As the oil is natural, the result of some dignitary's experimentation centuries ago, Earl Gray is not treated with the same contempt as modern flavoured tea bags that come in caramel, strawberry, and other utterly chemical varieties. It is still a ruse, though.

Tea bags. The British like them, and have spent a lot of engineering effort (that would be better spent on a new Jaguar) making them behave in a particular manner. So far they have failed. My British friends have attempted to convince me using the finest of these contraptions, a vaguely pyramidal thing that comes in boxes (and isn't flat-packed), but even that deteriorates the taste far too much. Tea bags are convenient and I use them sometimes in the office, but if you're going for really good tea, they simply won't do.

Milk. If you only have enough gumption to challenge one aspect of British tea, challenge milk. While some people actually like the taste of Earl Gray (though I find it vile), and tea bags have the justification of convenience, putting milk in tea is absolutely inexcusable. A lot of milk in tea will produce a specific flavour, that you might find intriguing and worth a try at least, but that is not proper tea. A little milk, the way the Brits do it, completely strips away the flavour of tea, and you end up drinking something murky-brown. Tea with milk is liquefied cardboard.


There is a better way to make tea. If your intention is to sample the full flavour of the drink itself, unleash the sensation of the plant, then you will need what my father makes, that which is singularly responsible for my appreciation of the art: Russian tea.

The beauty of Russian tea is its purity; it carries exactly one unorthodox step, and otherwise sticks to the absolute basics. It thoroughly encompasses the nature of tea as a social drink, a stimulant, and a savoury treat.

Russian tea requires the following tableware:
  • A kettle*
  • A pot
  • Teacups** and teaspoons
  • A sugar basin
  • A small tray.

It also requires the proper kind of tea. There are two aspects here. First, it has to be free leaf. This is non-negotiable. But don't just grab something that doesn't come in bags! You might end up with crushed tea, and that's horrid. Crushed/broken/granulated tea is worse than even tea bags. It's a homogenous mass that has gone through pulverizing equipment, and this means that the tea leaves are cut with stems - if you're lucky - or with random biomass like wood chippings. The stems do actually have the same compounds as the rest of the plant, so crushed tea provides the strength and the color, and it's cheap. But it doesn't provide the taste, or the aroma. Be absolutely sure that what you have is actual free leaf tea. It has to have large, long, dry chunks, and be a bit crunchy.

The second aspect is what kind of tea to use. Black tea, obviously, and not Earl Gray. But even black tea has varieties. The simple answer is it doesn't matter: they all come from the same plant, it's just a matter of processing. Just grab a decent brand - Dilmah is a safe choice for a newbie. Your keywords otherwise are Darjeeling or Orange Pekoe. The latter doesn't have bits of oranges in it, that's just a reference to the color it has in TV commercials. Both these types are actually pure, unflavoured black tea - exactly what you want. Don't use English Breakfast Tea! It's black and unflavoured, but it's a cheap mixture designed to be drunk at the time of day when your sensory receptors haven't recalbrated to the physical universe yet.

Now, next up is the tricky part, that which makes the tea Russian. Whereas normally you would make all of the tea in a pot, then pour into a cup and drink, the right way here is to use the pot for zavarka - the concentrate. You mix your own tea in your own cup: put in a bit of the concentrate and add water by preference. This does not deteriorate the taste of the tea, because it's still drawn out of the leaves by boiling hot water right there and then; but it allows you to vary the strength of it. This is where the social aspect comes in. A pot of zavarka, along with a kettle, lets each person have the tea at the strength they enjoy most.

The ratio of free tea leaves to water for zavarka is the same as the ratio of coffee powder to water for regular drinking coffee. Remember, you're going to be diluting the tea a lot! Plus, I'm talking about dry volume: dried tea leaves have a lot of volume but little weight and density. Use teaspoons. If you use 4 tablespoons of coffee for a half-pint (quarter-liter) mug, put 4 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour a half-pint of boiling water over them. (Use this ratio - 4 teaspoons of leaves per 250ml of water - as your default.)

An important point, one that Mr. Adams got right: the water has to be boiling when it hits the leaves. It's not just a matter of temperature; boiling is a process whereby bits of water turn to vapour, and this really helps to draw out the tea from the leaves. You can pre-warm the pot to make sure the water still boils for a few seconds once it's in; using a clay/china pot helps immensely. It's also useful to keep the water boiling in the kettle for a little bit before pouring. Go and put your kettle on: can you hear bubbling noises for about 5-10 seconds after it switches off? Excellent, that'll do.

(Note: you have to let the zavarka pot stand for a few minutes. This lets it become strong enough. In the meantime you can refill the kettle to have a lot of hot water for everyone, and call them to the table. The beauty of Russian tea is that you can drink it for a long time: the zavarka keeps the proper taste for a couple of hours, and as long as you have hot water on the table - not necessarily boiling - it still tastes good.)

Now you can go ahead and drink the tea. Experiment with the ratio of zavarka to water; start with 50/50 and adjust. (50/50 is actually a strong mixture, but you're doing this to fully feel the taste.)

Obviously you can't add milk to Russian tea, but you can add lemon. The canonical way is to cut a circular slice (use a half-circle if a full one doesn't fit in your cup, but really half-circles are for tequila), put it in the cup, and pour tea over it. Just like Mr. Adams with his milk - of course you can't scald lemon, but the pouring of strong, hot zavarka will draw our the juices better. Once you've put in the zavarka and water, feel free to poke the lemon with your spoon, press it against the bottom of the cup, crushing the individual cells. This is - again like Mr. Adams - socially unacceptable, but I learned about good tea from my parents when I was little, and I still like doing it. You can also take the butt end of a lemon and squeeze it over the cup. It doesn't have an adverse effect on the tea. In fact, when I get the flu, one of the best medicines I know is a nice, hot mug of tea with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it.

Actual lemons are best, of course, but I've had acceptable results from cooking-spec lemon juice. Not the sweetened drinkable stuff, and not the concentrate used for baking - just organic squeezed juice. I use it for convenience, along with my tea-making set: a kettle, and a glass pot that has a leaf-holder in the middle. The pot sits on a hotplate that keeps it from cooling down, and can be used to pre-heat it. That makes up slightly for it not being china.



If you just use a regular clay pot, you'll probably get a few loose leaves in your cup. There are devices to avoid this - little net things that clip onto the spout - but don't bother: it's part of the experience. Otherwise, add a bit of sugar if you want it, and you're ready to drink!

--------------
* The more culturally curious of readers may be vaguely aware of the samovar, a massive copper keg with a place to start a small fire, and a spout at the bottom. There were electric samovars in the Soviet days, even. They're impressive-looking, but have very little to do with the taste of tea, so don't worry about it.

** Another classic Russian thing is to pour your tea into the saucer, then sip it from that. It's a way to cool down the tea quickly, since there's a lot of surface area to the water. Please don't try and do this. It's only for professionals, and rudimentary anyway. As far as I can tell, it's an artefact from the samovar, where water could actually end up superheated. For the full experience, you should still use fairly small clay cups with saucers. Or, to be exceedingly Russian, use a glass mug in a silver holder. You can find them in most Russian souvenier shops, just between the five-in-one dolls and the figurines of bears swigging vodka.

Labels: , , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Monday, September 03, 2007

Achievement

Tartu may still be a chilly place, but suddenly people have something to be happy about: last week Gert Kanter won the discus throw world championship for Estonia. Considering that Andrus Värnik won the javelin title last yeartwo years ago, and Erkki Nool's Sydney olympic gold medal in the decathelon, athletics are probably Estonia's second biggest source of international sporting pride, just behind uphill skiing.

In other news, an Estonian won a game design competition at the biggest computer gaming exhibition in the US last week. Full disclosure: I know the girl, and yeah, she's awesome. :)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Monday, July 02, 2007

Hans Rosling: Seemingly Impossible Is Possible



Seriously. You need to watch this.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 1 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Cyberwar Explained

An excellent article in the NY Times about the attacks on Estonian networks. Commendable primarily because it is one of the first such treatments I've seen in a non-specialist outlet that doesn't present a horrifying level of techical illiteracy.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 7 Comments Links to this post

Monday, May 28, 2007

This Post Will Save Your Life

My boss is not only a natural speedreader (which is really annoying), but also has a strange capacity for reading absolutely anything. He is a literary omnivore, consuming vast quantities of unremarkable unicorn fantasy as a way to spend a weekend.

I, on the other hand, like to read, but I'm picky about the material. I suppose it comes down to the fact that when I read, I open my mind to the book; I'm determined to control what sort of propaganda I expose myself to, and I'm easily disgusted by intellectual folly. Add to this the woeful state of jacket reviews, and you'll understand why I struggle even in large bookstores.

Recently I've noticed something else. I've become a literary sexist; I don't trust female writers. There's a voice inside my head that tells me things written by a woman will be either pink fluff, depressing relationship treatments, or dreary postmodernist philosophy. I'm sure it's wrong to think so, but there you go.

So it was largely by accident that I bought A.M. Homes's This Book Will Save Your Life in Stockholm a few weeks ago. The name is not obviously feminine, you see. But I'm glad I did: I enjoyed the book tremendously. Even though it does contain both relationships and postmodernism. Ignore the plot description on the back cover, done by an idiot intern who only read the first two chapters. This is the story of a person that has hidden himself away in a coccoon of success, eliminated all the things that would threaten his wellbeing - but found no wellbeing in it. It is the story of a person that has tried living without stress, and then made a conscious decision to let stress back into his life. Furthermore, it is the story of all the people around him - people he rescues figuratively or literally, people whose lives he's ruined and people whose lives he's improved. It is a sugar-free story of optimism.

It probably won't save your life, but it's a book worth reading. That is not a recommendation I give out lightly.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

True Believer

New single out.

Gets better every time I listen to it. First impression was that it was a bit too commercial, but I guess after Universal let E-Type do whatever he wanted with Loud Pipes Save Lives, he owes them a hit. ;) LPSL was an outstanding album, easily in the same league as The Explorer and quite possibly his best, but it never got much commercial success. Paradise was big because of Eurovision, and then there was Olympia, but the later double single wasn't really noticed.

New album in August.

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Spring Song

It's 4 am on a Friday night (or rather Saturday morning). I am walking along the damp, cold streets of Tartu, heading home after a heavy night out - Priit's birthday party, followed by hipster night at the Rock Club (Godber is right - the most infuriating thing about indie music is that songs start out really well, but instantly turn into the same boring three-chord background to a whiny vocal) and concluding at Trehv. After wine, vodka-cranberry, two pints of vodka & energy drink, and a glass of Bacardi Razz & ginger ale (brilliant combo, try it) I am neither sleepy nor miserably drunk; in fact I am pleased with myself, and with the realization that I am in fact the sort of person that stays out with friends until 4 am. I just turned 23, for some reason I care about such things.

And as I make my way through a mix of old wooden houses, Soviet apartment blocks and shiny new concrete & glass buildings, with my breath curling in the air in front of me, what do I hear?

Birdsong.

Beautiful, man. Bloody beautiful.

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 4 Comments Links to this post

Friday, April 27, 2007

THIS IS TALLINNNNNN!!!



Via.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Pülk for the win!

Siim Teller relates the story of the pülk - the new Estonian noun for a small portable mp3 player. A few days ago, the major news outlets carried a press release of the Amateur Linguists Union; it had ostensibly just held a ballot to select an authentically Estonian name of iPod-class devices. Among the submissions, the pülk just barely pipped the trühmul, said the Union's president, Kalmar Kalkun.

Except that the press release, delivered to the venerable Baltic News Service that never bothered to check it, was apparently the product of intoxicated minds playing a practical joke in the course of a particularly good party. As someone who's worked in newspapers a bit, let me tell you, it's not even all that funny. :P

The significance of this is that the Estonian language places great stock in phonetics and onomatopoea. While no more preposterous than the much-maligned (and real) rüperaal, the pülk is an incredibly funny-sounding word, especially when joined by its marginally unsuccessful sidekick, the trühmul. The fact that the name of the President of the Amateur Linguists Union translates as Squid Turkey only adds to the entertainment - it's laughable, but still plausible.

The upshot of this entire affair is that the pülk has made its rounds in corporate email lists, and solidified by this revelation, it has every chance of gaining the sarcastic support of Estonian youth. The pülk is liable to get a lot more popular usage this way than if Eesti Keele Instituut came out with it.

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Desperate Need of REM Sleep

In my quest to evade stupid yuppie depression by filling up my time with important events, I have succeeded in transcending normal tiredness and passing into that elusive area of sleep deprivation that is sometimes described (by people with authority to speak of such things) as a marginally safer way to experience a drug trip. I spent Monday night in Akureyri, catching a bit of sleep in the relative comfort of a 737 over Scandinavia; that was followed by a two-odd hour drive to Tartu and the remains of a working day. Tuesday and Wednesday nights somehow turned out to be fairly late, and by Thursday I was back on the road, or rather on a ferry. Friday night was, of course, spent in Club Patricia. I'm on my way back now; and whereas on the way here I shared the four-bunk room with one other guy who had been drinking for 30 hours previously and passed out at first opportunity, this time I have been relegated to the least favourable bed. The room is hot, smells of dirty socks and is full of snorring people who haven't showered recently. And that is the reason why it is 3.45 am Estonian time, and I am posting this over the M/S Romantika's free WiFi connection, from the middle of the Baltic Sea.

Stockholm was, in a word, glorious. Two days of sunshine and cloudless skies were just what I needed to round off a week in easter-time Iceland. The contrast is staggering. I know that Reykjavik's nightlife doesn't come into its own until after midnight, but Stockholm's center evokes a special feeling even in the early afternoon; a feeling of a proper big city. It feels like things are happening there, like it's a significant hub of global activity; and it is. Swedes are, in my experience at least, uncharacteristically outgoing for this region, and when you combine that with the inevitable sheen of Scandinavian lawfulness and a quiet confidence that everything is right in this part of the world, you get a marvellously friendly night scene. Where else would the bouncer politely ask me to button up my jacket over my Independent MC Support T-shirt, explaining apologetically that they have a policy of no obvious affiliation in the dresscode; even Hell's Angels are required to check their colors. Could you see this happening in NYC, really?

Iceland has a peculiar attitude to its significant tourist industry. Where Tallinn is slightly pissed off at cross-gulf vodka tourists and Easyjet stag parties, and Stockholm embraces its visitors, the Icelanders seem to pay them the minimal possible attention. In a crowded tourist location like the Gullfoss waterfall, the only safety measure on a treacherous, slippery hillside path in early April is a rope at ankle height. It demarkates where you're not supposed to go; if a tourist ignores it and falls off, well, it's the tourist's own fault for being an idiot. In the same way, only a few years ago Easter time apparently meant that the whole of Reykjavik completely shut down; these days some restaurants and shops do stya open for the tourists' sake, but it still feels deserted. I asked our guide whether there were any tourist traps related to Brunhilde's castle, out of the Songs of the Niebelungs; she didn't know what I was talking about. It feels like the Icelanders know that their nature attracts plenty of tourists anyway, so they don't feel obligated to make too much of an effort: there's enough bodyflow to keep the industry healthy, and they're not hoping for too much return business, as you can see all of Iceland you'll need in one visit. Iceland's tourist trade came out of the first cheap transatlantic flights, which stopped in Reykjavik along the way, often with a significant hole in the schedule. Indeed, Iceland is good as a tourist's stopover, like Hong Kong and/or Singapore are supposed to be for Australia, but it's not really up to scratch as a destination.

Stockholm, on the other hand, is wonderful. I was last here roughly a year ago, and on that occasion it was cold and wet; but in good weather it is a visceral pleasure to be in. The city comprises all you'd want, from the medieval core to the authentic bohemia of Södermalm, the inevitable 60s-functional and now somewhat derelict blocks in the shopping area (if you bother to actually look up at the Ahlens City building, you won't be impressed, and whoever planned the escalators in PUB needs to be slapped in the face with a wet trout), the lovely homes of Norrmalm and the noble town houses of Kungsholmen... And it has an extremely cool subway, too.

You couldn't imagine Laugarvegur organically cordonned off by a crowd assembled to watch a breakdance crew performing on a Saturday afternoon, far more for their own pleasure than for any money passersby throw into the hat (it wouldn't even pay for sneakers); but on Drottninggatan, it feels proper. I mean, you really would, wouldn't you? Makes perfect sense.
I'm not alone - I'm on my way home
I am here, I'm standing on my own
Just a little bit tired...
I'm on my way - home

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 3 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Putin Pudding


Now in Polonium-210 flavour!

(Via Kitya Karlson, RU.)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Just Say Nyet



Sorry, but this is hilarious.

Via

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Day of Fools

Best gag yet is Delfi's newscast, featuring items like the Bronze Soldier being repositioned in Tallinn Bay where the statue of Kalevipoeg was supposed to be; a glass sarcophagus will be erected in its place, housing the giant chocolate bear that Laima, the Latvian chocolate factory, will present to the people of Ruhnu island. (Trust me, if you follow the local news, these make a lot more sense.) The anchor is Liis Lass, the Estonian equivalent of a Paris Hilton, taking her clothes off throughout the show. Hell, it's a way to boost viewer numbers!

Meanwhile I've been in Tallinn for two days now, and still have three days to go before I leave for Iceland. It's been over a month since I was last in the capital, and I am starting to feel once again that this is no longer my home town. It's also a very different city to drive around. Tallinn is only four times as populous as Tartu, but feels far larger. In Tartu, navigating involves figuring out where your destination is; in Tallinn, it involves figuring out how to get there. Tallinn traffic is a lot more intense (although nowhere near as bad as Riga), but most parts of the city are connected by thoroughfares with a minimum of traffic lights. Any trip by car is based around the arteries. The consequence of this is that you stop thinking of it as a single area, and start considering it as a set of plains, separate locals between which you can only travel on a main road. It is akin to the feeling people get in London when travelling by Tube: the physical proximity of objects is less relevant than the links between them on the Underground map.

Saturday afternoon, I found myself in an industrial back yard, phoning my friend the postal delivery driver, asking how to get from the Kristiine shopping mall to the Mööblimaja furniture emporium. I knew that they were very close and I vaguely knew which sidestreet I needed to take, but I got lost in the jumble of old houses and one-way streets in Haabersti - even though I regularly navigate similar terrain in Tartu.

The reason why I was going to the furniture shop is that my new apartment is ready ahead of schedule; I'm due to move in at the end of April, which means I'll have a massive rush right after I get back from my holiday. I need to figure out how to fit all the requisite stuff into a 36-square-meter apartment; or rather, I need to figure out a way to pack the maximum functionality into the minimum amount of furniture, where the furniture must still look good to my rather critical taste. This is compounded by the fact that I have only once been in a display apartment of the same floorplan - done up in a truly mind-boggling neon green, something between a magic marker and a high-visibility jacket - and I have no idea how the conservative-but-unorthodox color scheme that Nerva came up with for me is actually going to look. The concept was to do everything that can't easily be replaced in grayscale, and then add color with the furniture and art. The walls alone are three different shades of gray - and if Nerva had negotiated more than three different colors with the builders, it would have been more - plus the kitchenette furniture in its own variation. I still think it's going to be very nice, and an asset whenever I sell the apartment, but the sort of capability I want of the apartment is not easy to fit into the floorspace of a bachelor's semi-studio.

Still, I am starting to get a general idea of how to get it done. My birthday is coming up in early May, and I intend to have a great big party to celebrate it along with my housewarming. AnTyx readers are all invited. :)

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Estonica: March Madness


In-joke for Estonian speakers/learners: what day is it?

By LJ Havsvind, via LJ Fyysik (both are in Russian).

Labels: , ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Estonica/Weekend

Saturday was hardcore: an exotic motorcycle show in the morning, and in the evening, Helena Nova at the Tartu Rock Club. Nevermind that I know the frontman, the band is actually really good. Bill themselves as Estonia's only glam rockers. Also a guest appearance by Brides in Bloom, who were excellent as well.

The coalition looks like it's sorted itself, but apparently the Greens are out. It might actually do them some good - you can't be a credible ecomentalist if you get into parliament on a surge of public support and then join the right-wing ruling class. IRL isn't getting the Foreign Ministry after all: Ansip says that it's important for the FM to be as close to the PM in political terms as possible, to efficiently project government policy. I can't really argue with that, it makes sense. Now Laar is going to be Speaker of the Riigikogu, I suppose.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Estonica: Free Ride

Left to right: policeman, company CEO and Student Bus passenger disposing of a competitor's offending vehicle.In a display of the "nobody told us it won't work" spirit that has served Estonians so well over the last decade and a half, a grassroots service has sprung up to provide students with free bus rides between Tallinn and Tartu. The domestic equivalent of a discount airline, the Student Bus uses funding from private sponsors to hire a coach & driver and run the country's busiest route on Friday and Sunday nights. They use city bus stops and dormitory parking lots to avoid terminal fees, and officially it is not a bus line, but rather a scheduled charter. Registration is by email, there are no paper tickets, and you can only ride if you have a student ID to show. The company, registered in a country village, is the brainchild of one Liis Reinhold, a South Estonian economics student. She also doubles as the model featured on the service's website.

The regular intercity carriers are in a huff over this. The Tallinn-Tartu line is regular, with buses on the half hour throughout the week, but apparently it's subsidized by the profitable weekend runs and the midweek does not pay for itself. The curious thing is just how much they are bothered by the loss of a single coachful of discount fares in each direction, at the times when normal lines are massively overcrowded. Certainly demand for the Student Bus exceeds supply, but Reinhold's business model looks like it needs a lot more aggression - in-bus advertising or some such. The current funding by unnamed sponsors is surely down to novelty value, and the company has not discussed its future past April.

Yet the big national carrier is scared enough to resort to obvious bullying techniques. Last weekend, a Sebe bus mysteriously broke down in the parking lot of the Tallinn Technical University, boxing in the chartered Hansabuss. The prompt arrival of gallant police forces put a stop to the Sebe driver's mumbling excuses, and the offending coach was pushed out of the way - upon which event it was magically resurrected and stormed off in visible dismay.

Now, I can see the carriers' point, in a general sense. But there is no practical reason to dislike the Student Bus. It uses well-maintained equipment from a reputable company with experienced drivers, licensed to carry passengers, so this is not a return to the dark days of pirate deathcabs on the twisty Tallinn-Tartu dual carriageway. It caters to a segment of the population with a real need for regular travel, and even discounted bus tickets are fairly expensive. If a grassroots student organization can actually pull this off? More power to them.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 2 Comments Links to this post

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Urban Pop Art



Apparently being done in Ramenskoe, a satellite city of Moscow.

Labels:

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Thursday, January 25, 2007

SEB's Stockmann Strategy

SEB is a Scandinavian banking corporation that owns the second largest consumer bank in Estonia. (The first largest is owned by a different Scandinavian banking corporation.) SEB has been playing catch-up quite usefully, undercutting the top dog on most of the important services. Their newest customer drive, very worthy of E-stonia, is the pildikaart - the ability to get a debit or credit card with your very own picture on it. You go to the SEB website, upload a digital image file, use a simple little applet to arrange it, and they'll print a shiny new Visa Electron, Visa Classic or Mastercard for you. The face of the card will still have the payment system logo, chip, and a thin strip of signature SEB green on the bottom, but it's still very cool.

The cost of this to SEB is negligible, while the boost to usage of their cards will likely be significant. This is a simple, ingenious move on their part, reminiscent of the Stockmann Christmas special.

Stockmann is another Scandinavian corporation, this time a chain of department stores. The Stockmann store in Tallinn has been around not quite as long as I can remember, but for a very long time indeed. It was one of the first places in postsoviet Tallinn that had an escalator, which impressed me hugely as a kid. It's still in the same building, though expanded and now covering five floors, with a massive parking annex.

Stockmann is an upmarket store, slightly more expensive than rivals. Its successful promotions include the regular Crazy Days sales, which are a proportional equivalent of Black Friday shopping sprees; and the fact that the Stockmann loyalty card gives you 90 minutes of free parking downtown. (As I once discovered, this is actually a clever ruse on their part to force their lady shoppers to make decisions in a hurry.) But the most awesome thing about Stockmann is that for many, many years it ran a Christmas promotion: during the month of December, the store provided free, professional giftwrapping services.

Chief rival Kaubamaja attempted to emulate Stockmann's signature attractions, with its own big sale at the same time as Stockmann's one, and eventually, free giftwrapping too. But by that time Stockmann had the advantage of word-of-mouth and consumer awareness. This means that the default, first choice holiday shopping location was always Stockmann.

Like all true genius, this was incredibly simple. Getting to design your own bank card is also a very simple idea. And that's why it's awesome.

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 0 Comments Links to this post

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Insult Codepage

The original ?off Ready Reckoner:

1 - The U.S. of A. is not all that she is made out to be
2 - Capitalism when done right is the right thing
3 - Socialism when done right is the right thing
4 - Genetic predisposition exists
5 - Genetic predisposition should not exist
6 - Racism is universal
7 - There are no universal truths
8 - I want love
9 - Oh! Shiny
10 - Freedom is costly
11 - 10 is an oxymoron
12 - Hehe! He said moron!
13 - Exceptions are not rules
14 - Exceptions prove the rule
15 - Exceptions do not return value
16 - Violence is valid
17 - Violence invalidates
18 - Moron!
19 - Fucking Moron!
20. [grinning, ducking, running]
21. And you can't use Google to find that out because...?
22. That's what I get for trying to get some conversation going. Some 19 doing a 23.
23. Thanks for stating the obvious. Moron.
24. This thread has gone south (or, west)
25. Reducing the fundamental arguments to catalogued & readily repeatable will either free us from our past, or doom us all to a life of reciting obscure numbers for eternity.
26. Salad cream
27. Fruit Show.
100011011. If we re-worked the idea into a binary system, we could recite a single number and it would encompass all of the arguments we wanted to make. (In Hex then...FA)
28. I made it to the sidebar!
29. (this insult reserved for future insults)
30. Deadpan. Gales of laughter ensued.
31. I've always thought Joel was full of sound advice, and followed his stuff for years, but this recent article just goes to show he's really lost the plot.
32. I have a PhD.
33. Poo
34. I wish muppet would stop dragging X here
a: psychopaths
b: damsels in distress
c: stupid news links
d: people who post muppet posts who just keep the stupid thing going
(used with supplementary number, e.g. 34c!)
35. muppet is a troll.
36. I feel so left out.
37. Don't feed the trolls.
38. When do you people ever get any work done/don't you have anything better to do than to post here?
39. Drat, X beat me to it. (used with name parameter, e.g. 39/Dennis)
40. Prove it.
41. Disprove it.
42. The Babel Fish argument (logically disproving God's existence)
43. I already said that.
44. That 43 was prime.
45. Anybody want some gmail invites?
46. It's disingenuous to refer to the most primitive, arcade exercises when trying to disprove the value of an ideology, but that's what you get when you chat with people who don't know what they're fucking talking about.
47. What are you, retarded?
48. Sympathy reply.
49. I regularly engage in sex with two women simultaneously.
50. Been there, done that.
51. The problem with the world today is stupidity. I'm not saying there should be a capital punishment for stupidity, but why don't we just take the safety labels off of everything and let the problem solve itself?
52. It doesn't do anything in Opera...
53. Marijuana is not a drug. It is a leaf.
54. Repost dildo!

Labels: ,

| More
posted by Flasher T at 8 Comments Links to this post