Monday, November 30, 2009

БЛОГЪР

A blogger whom I met at Th!nk About It works for Bulgarian national television, and asked me to comment on the Copenhagen summit. Here's the video. (Yes, I'm growing an evil goatee.)

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Friday, October 23, 2009

I Don't Think You Know What "Interesting" Means

Here's a news article linked from one of my forums. The news story itself is a couple of days old now. The gist of it is that a Frenchman paid some Kosovar gangsters to kidnap a German and drop him off near a French courthouse. The German had previously been convicted in absentia in France of the manslaughter of the Frenchman's daughter; the German authorities found the case to be without merit, and so refused to extradite him.

Just to get it out of the way, my personal opinion is that the Frenchman - who appears to be cooperating with the police in the identification of the kidnappers - should be tried, convicted for kidnap, and sentenced to lots of community service. He broke the law, but in the least evil way possible under the circumstances. (For comparison, consider Drasius Kedys, the Lithuanian who murdered two people suspected of molesting his daughter.) The German is now in French custody; the article says that a conviction in absentia means he will now go through another trial, where he will have the opportunity to defend himself.

What bothers me is the cocnluding line of Charles Bremner's article from the Times Correspondents section:
It's interesting that we have only had the French side of this story.
As I commented on the article itself - yes, because it would be ridiculous to expect a staff writer for a major newspaper to actually get the German side of the story!

Even though the article itself appears in the Blogs section, it still carries the Times header; as such, Charles Bremner does represent the institution and ought to be bound by the habits of good journalism. I usually defend the established media in the face of claims that it has outlived its usefulness in the age of Digg and Twitter, but lazy incompetence of the kind exhibited by master Bremner makes it difficult to do so. "It's interesting" can be expected from a blog (though even then it is vulnerable to ridicule), but in a major news source, it ought to be cause for immediate termination. The very least that the Times correspondent must do is contact the German prosecutor's office and ask for a statement, better yet - have a look at the reasoning in Germany's official refusal to extradite or even pursue the case. Even if that information is not public record, certainly the Frenchman and his attorney would have access to it. And if Bremner were to strike out, find nothing of significance, then the line should read "The German authorities declined to comment on the case".

Charles Bremner uses the word "interesting". I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Estonian Girl

Tragically true, though there are exceptions. Found via Colm of Corcaighist. Anyone know the author?

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Tim Minchin - Storm

Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

The Telegraph Folly

My sister (who lives in Brussels and does something with international labour law) asked me to comment on a link she was sent. I started writing a response, but it grew enough that I might as well post it here, for general consumption.


It's claptrap. The author mentions no economic theory to explain how the impending doom will actually come about. He begins with forced misdirection, using private debt figures in a context designed for public debt. He then mentions that the state "could" spend more, and that we have a remarkably low public debt figure. He assembles random scary soundbites, such as our economy falling twice as much as Iceland (Iceland's economy is fishing and geothermal-powered aluminium smelting, it has nothing to do with the financial crisis that killed the country). Essentially, it is a piece written to order. His editor asked for a thousand words on how the Estonian economy is fucked, and he assembled the best bits of trollbait and posturing that Google could provide.

As a rule of thumb, do not trust an Englishman with a double-barreled last name to be actually competent or knowledgeable about anything.

The rebuttal is the same it's been since 2007: the private debt is held by foreign banks, and is Sweden's headache, not Estonia's. Estonia has a reasonable personal bankruptcy law, and devaluation would simply result in massive foreclosures that would leave Swedish-owned banks with swathes of property they could never sell for anything approaching the value of the loans. Estonia's Euro accession is in the absolute, unequivocal interest of the parties holding the private debt, which is why the Swedish central bank has recently declared that they made billions of SEK available to the Estonian central bank, in order to maintain the EEK's stability.

The impressively tragic numbers describing the fall in real estate prices in Tallinn belie a virtual lack of transactions. As I've said a long time ago, the biggest realty discounts come from new-build projects, where developers are slashing initially astronomical margins on units that were built to the lowest cost. Lack of consumer confidence and prohibitive interest rates have destroyed demand, and the relatively small amount of desperate supply is available at fire-sale prices to those lucky few who can pay cash. There are damn lies, there are statistics, and there are percentages: you'll get a scary picture if you compare a buyer's market against the apex of an insane price boom.

In any case, it is almost unbearably ironic to be accused of high personal debt and unrealistic house prices by the British!

The motivations behind Estonia's behaviour in the current economic climate are quite difficult for outside observers to comprehend. Part of it is politics, yes: we are willing to sacrifice much in order to integrate ourselves with Europe's infrastructure to the extent that it will be cheaper to defend us than to throw us to the bear. But there is more to it. While the entire Western world is battling a recession with massive government spending, we are doing something that simply does not occur to Telegraph readers (or writers): living within our means.

It was Stockholm and Frankfurt's folly to pump cheap loans into Estonia, and we'd have been fools to ignore the opportunity - personally I am giddy with satisfaction at my mortgage payments, consisting of a contractually fixed tiny margin over a freshly bottomed-out EURIBOR. My apartment's worth less now than what I paid in the fall of 2006, but not less than I owe on it (because the local banks always demanded significant down payments, which the British, with their multi-generation home loans of 110% of the value of the purchased property, should really give a try). And if we really were that bothered by the size of the private foreign debt - which master Evans-Pritchard emphasizes is the second highest in Eastern Europe, though even in percentage terms it pales in comparison to that of the UK - then we would indeed devalue the kroon. Let SEB and Swedbank repossess all those Soviet tower blocks, while we once again become cheap labour, drawing off the last of Western Europe's skilled jobs; and five years from now, when the defaulted debts of a third of the country are wiped clean, we will simply buy all the property back from the banks at a fraction of the loan amounts. I wonder how surprised Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and other devaluation advocates would be if they saw the employment contracts of Estonia's competitive middle class, particularly the clause that guarantees a recalculation of salaries in Euros if the peg is lost!

Instead, we are being responsible, reliable allies of Western Europe, maintaining our obligations and dealing with the real world. Which is not something I would expect an Eton twit to understand.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lazy Person's Vote

New article on Th!nk About It - this time, with video!

Not particularly bothered if you vote or not, but I would appreciate it if you commented. Oh, and this is a video post. Be gentle - it's more or less my first experience in editing video.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

New TAI post. Not my best work, but should count as an EP-themed entry for the month.

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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.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Who Needs the Euro?

Everyone knows Iceland went bankrupt, but let’s face it: Iceland is three hundred thousand people who can’t grow any bread. More worryingly, large countries - those that make up the backbone of the EU - very much can go bankrupt; in fact they have before, and it’s increasingly likely that they will again; and soon. What hope do the smaller member states have?

My new post on Th!nk About It. Click, read, comment, and vote it up! I'm trying to win an iPhone here!

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Sunday, February 01, 2009

Shakedown: Estonia

The Th!nk About It website is up, and so is my first post there. Go, check it out, post your comments over there.

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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.

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Russian soldier deserts to Georgia

Russian news sources report of a soldier from the Russian army positions in the Akhalgori region of South Ossetia deserting his post and escaping to Georgia proper. He is apparently seeking asylum, citing horrid conditions in the army - lack of food and bathing facilities and physical abuse.

The latter is interesting because the soldier in question, Aleksander Glukhov, was due to end his stint in the spring. (Incidentally, the NewsRu report talks about the Russian MoD's initial claim that the expeditionary force in South Ossetia and Abkhasia is completely made up of contract soldiers; even though the law forbids sending conscripts like Glukhov into a war zone abroad, they were indeed used in the Georgian conflict, which the MoD eventually had to admit - after long denials.) It is known that the Russian national service has a highly abusive hierarchy, where conscripts move up depending on how much time they've served, and then use violence against their juniors. Glukhov, a young man from the Udmurtia region of Russia, was ostensibly at the top of the food chain, with less than six months before his discharge - and still chose to desert his army and his country.

Reuters caught up with Glukhov in Tbilisi, and their reporter seems to be satisfied that the soldier is in good health and is not being kept against his will. The Russian authorities obviously beg to differ, saying that Glukhov was captured by Georgian special forces, and is being forced to say all these things under psychological pressure and threat of torture. Yet the Georgian authorities have apparently allowed Glukhov to phone his parents, and has invited them to come to Georgia and meet with their son.

Georgian TV channel Rustavi2 has a report on Glukhov, with a video of the man himself (starts at 1.30, in Russian, translation below):



My unit was moved to Tskhinval in June. My superiors said... officers, commanders... that you are going to Georgia, to South Ossetia, to help the people against Georgia. In June we started to dig trenches, firing positions. Also, the combat alerts started. We moved out to our positions. Stayed there for a week, returned - turned out they were drills. Then, after that, I was in Leningori - Akhalgori, on December 1st. Served there for a month, month and a half.

There are no normal conditions there. My relationship with the batallion commander, Major Fyodorov, became bad. Bad conditions. No washing facilities. The food situation is bad - we're fed very little. We also have combat vehicles - tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery units, aimed at Georgian villages... so I am asking the president of Georgia to leave me in Thbilisi.


It's interesting that Glukhov's mentioning of being in South Ossetia in June confirms what was suggested by an earlier slip-up from Russian army captain Denis Sidristy - that Russian army forces were in South Ossetia before the Georgian attack began. If true, it would mean that the war in Georgia was deliberately provoked by Russia.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Stop that. Right now.

Estonia is undoubtedly well served by having a voice as prominent as Edward Lucas speaking for us, but that doesn't mean the Economist's Eastern European correspondent is infallible, or insightful without exception. I may be a blogger, but the one thing I have always tried to avoid being is a pundit; a professional voice representing a particular set of beliefs or causes. The problem with pundits is that they are of very limited value to the everyday functioning of a society. They tend to manhandle any event or factor into their unified theory of reality, and that makes their conclusions and their advice flawed. Worse still, their neverending search for controversy and hardship can have a very negative effect on the general mindset. Master Lucas is entirely guilty of this, even if he is our bastard.

Submitted as evidence, his review of Detsembrikuumus. Nevermind his odd misreading of the plot (he writes that "only quick thinking and bravery by the protagonist (...) save the six-year-old Estonian republic from disaster", whereas the protagonist is in no way the heroic figure, nor all that central to the defeat of the coup). Nor will I dwell for long on the notion that "as the events of April 2007 showed, a cyber-attack can have roughly the same effect [as capturing a country's telegraph and post office in the 20s] without firing a shot", which shows a misunderstanding of the attack's nature that is shameful for anyone undertaking to draw such wide-ranging conclusions so publically.

I take far more offense to the assertion that "economic hardship has discredited the idea of independence in the eyes of many". Lucas admits elsewhere in the article that the 1924 attempt was executed (if not planned) by "idealists hoping to build a workers’ paradise" who are not to be found these days. So why does he, or anyone, seriously think that the economic crisis will be a test of Estonia's national spirit? We may become disillusioned with Europe - although on any significant scale, that's highly unlikely - but why would we become disillusioned with our country, a free and democratic state? Latvians and Lithuanians may throw rocks at their parliament buildings, but the petitions to foreign powers are still no more than a postmodernist comment (and besides, Estonia already got the principal benefits of such a union by placing the responsibility on the Swedish taxpayer to bail out our banking system).

Yes, we may be disgusted by our politicians, but that's what elections are for. I am disappointed that master Lucas has fallen victim to the fallacy that a government is tantamount to the state. The Republic of Estonia is a country where the ultimate power rests with its people. And as a people, we may be malcontent and reluctant to celebrate - or even recognize - our achievements. But we can do that, because in the heart of an Estonian lies the unshakeable belief that this is our land, and it is preposterous to even suggest that independence relies on prosperity, and that economic hardship might somehow challenge it.

Estonia has been frequently conquered, but it has never been crushed. Edward Lucas, please stop filling the minds of Economist readers (and Estonian emo kids) with this nonsense. Just stop.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Also,


Rome 319.jpg
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Rome pics are up.

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In Which Flasher Does a James May Impression

(First of all, I would like to offer an official, on-the-record apology to Dana Gonzalez. I'm sorry for calling you an unreasonable American. By comparison, you are Kofi Annan.)

I seem to be coming across topics that stir up emotion a lot recently. One thing that is guaranteed to get an opinion out of everyone in Estonia, but especially expats, is consumer protection.

The short story is that there isn't any. Legally, it is nearly impossible to return a faulty product to the store and get your cash back. If you convince them that it is faulty, they send it off for an expert assessment, and if the expert says the problem is not subject to the warranty, you're done. The assessment can take months. You can pay to get a second opinion, but at that point you are likely to exceed the value of the item you are trying to get refunded.

Much like the whole swim trunks thing, this tends to bother foreigners a lot more than Estonians, who have just learned to deal with it. Mingus is angry about it at the moment, and I can't really say I blame him; what he says is true enough. I myself have had some horrible experiences with customer services in Estonia. I once bought a pair of fancy Salamander shoes that fell apart after a week; I took them back to the shop, which sent them off to the expert, and they returned with a generic verdict of "user error". A lot of money wasted, and faith in fancy brands ruined. Next pair of footwear I bought was a set of paratrooper combat boots from an Israeli army surplus store, and they've been awesome.

Yes, it's common wisdom that a lot of the builders do crap work; this is why I was not particularly bothered by the construction industry imploding: in a buyer's market builders will have to compete on merit, which is an unassailably good thing. And yes, it's true that Estonian service personnel is quite unlikely to be nice to you: Estonians consider politeness to be overrated. Actually, these days if a salesgirl smiles at me, it confuses me a bit - something is wrong with this picture.

But honestly, it's not a big deal. While the law is not very consumer-oriented, there is compensation by decent shops that want to preserve a reputation. I bought a pair of extremely nice mittens at Kaubamaja at the beginning of the previous winter - made out of individual scraps of fur, turned inside out and sewn together; they had visible seams on the outside, which I thought looked interesting, and natural fur on the inside, which made them very warm and soft and nice in the cold, dry climate that normally has me going through tubes of Neutrogena hand cream at an alarming rate. Unfortunately the stitching on the seams wasn't up to standards, and the bits of fur scrap started to come apart. I brought the mittens back to Kaubamaja, and a couple weeks later got a call from them - they gave me a full, cash refund. They didn't have to; maybe it was because they pulled up my loyalty card records and saw that I've given them a fair bit of business over the years; in any case, that behaviour has endeared Kaubamaja to me, and I continue to shop there as much as I can.

Same with construction. My apartment, in a brand new building, is some 15 months old now. The factory warranty is two years; at the end of the first year they asked me to email any issues I might have had with the flat, then sent over a team of workmen to go over the apartment and fix all the niggly bits, like re-seal the corners with fresh silicon, saw down the bathroom door frame so the door doesn't droop down (didn't affect it opening or closing, just looked nasty), replace the bits holding the pipework to the wall inside the water meter cabinet, etc. They even left a few tins of paint for me to use, because my apartment has a custom color scheme - they had to mix up those shades for the corner sealant jobs, and wouldn't be using them anywhere else in the building. Overall I was actually extremely happy with the warranty work that the building's developer did not strictly have to do.

Honestly, it's not like America is the land of consumer satisfaction. So yes, Estonia has problems with consumer rights, but it's not that bad. You just have to exercise some common sense; caveat emptor. Also, part of the Estonian mentality is that the customer is, indeed, not the king. A retail purchase is a business transaction; both sides have rights and obligations, and both sides can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Just because you're giving someone some money for their merchandise does not mean you are entitled to any special treatment. Customer service staff does is not obliged to deal with your bullshit.

This is not meant to be unduly harsh on Mingus. Like I said, he's not wrong. However, his post did draw some odd comments, particularly from one James Graff.

Honestly, I urge you to go and read his comment on Mingus's article. Not only is it hilariously inaccurate (at this point there is very little price difference between most items in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe; differences with the US for electronics and other specific items are not unique to Estonia, but a result of manufacturers' market segmentation - which is why Amazon or Newegg are legally prohibited from shipping such items outside North America), but it is infuriatingly idiotic. When I went off on a rant about the Baltlantis swim shorts article, this is the sort of ignorant twat I was aiming for. The sort of xenophobic cretin that Vello Vikerkaar was talking about in his seminal work of Esto-American cultural anthropology, Are You an Expat Loser?. And it's not just the bitchfest on Mingus's blog, either - he's got more!

I've spent enough time on the Internet to understand that this James Graff character (Blogger.com profile: Long haired singer/songwriter, lead guitarist, keyboard player, saxy saxyphonist...mainly over the hill LOSER!! (La - hoo - za - her)!! Ivy league, Wharton Business School/Moore School of Engineering Management and Technology BURNTOUT-DROPOUT!! ("I wouldn't work if you paid me!!" and "The only thing I learned in business school is that I don't want to "work" a day in my life...I want to "play" and get paid for it!!!") is almost certainly a troll, but what the hell, I'll bite.

I think that man is a danger, frankly. If there's one thing I can't stand it's long-haired, sanctimonious, patronising Americans in tartan trousers coming to Estonia and trying to persuade us to turn it into Lakewood, New Jersey. He wants Tartu full of sandal-wearing hippies pushing wheel-barrows full of amaranth grain, and he wants Tallinners to be Manhattan wannabes with Macbooks and guido stock brokers - "mornin' Jimmy, I've just bought some mortgage-backed securities, alright". I say, James, if you're reading... okay, you won't be reading obviously, because I'm not talking about indie rock bands or organic produce or Sarbanes Oxley, but if you happen to have looked in by mistake...

We're not interested in the views of stupid Americans who come over with their big video cameras saying "Gee I love your country, but it's just so wrong".

FUCK OFF!

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Estonia Syndrome

...here.

Links/plugs/feedback welcome.

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