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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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comment of the day

As with anything else, Latvia trails Estonia by nearly two years.

(Not mine, alas.)

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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.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh Snap

Talking to Justin the other day, we got onto the topic of Andrus Ansip as the longest-serving (continuously) PM in the history of postsoviet Estonia. In fact, only one Estonian leader has ever served longer than him.

The Päts syndrome is a constant issue in Estonian internal politics. Personally I find it reassuring that since '91, Estonia has never had a government make it from one election to another. But Ansip is a prime candidate for a latter-day Päts, as he does have that central quality: an absolute conviction that he is right, and everyone around him is a moron. (If you think I'm overstating the issue, go and watch a Steinbock House press conference, especially one where the reporters ask him about something less than utterly practical.) He also has a core team that seems loyal to him.

What he does lack is vision. Reform is supposed to be the party of economic competence, but Ansip wants more than that - he wants to be a statesman. Unfortunately, that's pure ambition; he doesn't have an overarching idea of what needs changing, like Laar and his mates did back in the early 90s. He wants to be in power for the sake of power.

In this, he is destroying Reform's credibility. In the context of Estonian politics, it seems ludicrous that the bankers' party is firmly in charge of a country, but cannot stop an economic recession. We've missed the Euro accession (nevermind that a lot of people were unconvinced by the idea, it's annoying that we weren't allowed into the Eurozone rather than choosing not to enter), inflation is high, unemployment is growing for the first time in recent memory, and now it turns out that even our balanced budget, one of the cornerstones of Estonia's economic miracle, might not be that balanced after all. This is where Ansip's cult of personality is coming back to bite him, because nobody cares about the coalition - this is Ansip's fault.

The disingenuous bit here is claiming that the Bronze Soldier debacle caused the crisis, by cutting off Russian transit. It certainly contributed, but let's not exercise selective memory: for most of 2006 at least, everybody was saying that 12% annual growth was unsustainable and that the shit was only a few millimeters away from the fan. Russia accounts for 8% of exports and 13% of imports; losing Russia's business hurts, but it's not going to bring the economy crashing down all on its own. (It didn't before, when the double tariffs were introduced, and we're in much better shape now.)

But Russian trade aside, Ansip was still supposed to mitigate the effects of the upcoming crisis. This is what the Reform Party is for. The most public effort so far was the new labour bill, which significantly curtailed employees' rights and benefits in favour of the employers. I can see the idea behind it - make the market more attractive to foreign investment - and at the time I didn't much care, as I've never drawn unemployment or any other welfare benefits from the state, but then I have the advantage of apparently marketable skills. The labour bill was designed to achieve a similar effect as the flat tax system, but whereas Laar's great coup was a feat of engineering - making corporations happy while the people shrugged and were mildly grateful for simpler tax returns - Ansip's plan was going to make life demonstrably more difficult for the actual voters. Since the favourite food of an Estonian is another Estonian, even the other coalition parties took advantage of the public outcry, and delivered the thermonuclear boot to the labour bill.

Now, there are things that Ansip's cabinet gets to be quietly proud of - they seem to have managed to stave off the Eurocrats and keep the zero corporate tax provision alive. But as far as the public is concerned, that is overshadowed by practical embuggerances like the higher fuel excise, which - correct me if I'm wrong - the goverment did not strictly need to implement quite yet. (As far as I understand it, we are obliged by EU policy to eventually both get the fuel excise up to Central European levels, and to bring the tax system in line with the rest of the confederation, but not quite yet.) Ansip is determined to take credit personally for everything happening in Estonia, but the upshot is that he gets blamed personally as well. Reform approval ratings are still decent, though falling, but opinion polls do not actually tell you who people would vote for if the ballots were handed out tomorrow. A lot of people are angry at Ansip, and some of them, like former Prime Minister and transit mogul Tiit Vähi, have stopped being subtle about it:
The most serious problem [in the Estonian economy] is that our Prime Minister is incapable of discussion or listening. As long as that is the case, I do not foresee any positive changes for the Estonian economy. We'd all rather take monuments down and put monuments up, and damn the economy. The politicians' infighting is more important.

New policies come with new people, but right now, nobody wants a change of government. They'd rather let the Reform Party roast for as long as they can.

The solution would be a government of specialists or technocrats, like we had in 1992. [...] Andrus Ansip does not solve problems, he sees myths and thinks that the economic slowdown is the fault of international imperialism and the four seasons.


Of course Vähi's words should be taken with the appropriate amount of salt, and the economy will bounce back up once the current crisis has shaken people up a bit. But I have a sneaking suspicion that when we come out on the other side of this mess, PM Ansip will be conspicuous by his absence.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blatant


A letter to the managing director of a Siberian coal mining company, from the local office of United Russia. It reads:

I consider your refusal to provide financial assistance to the regional branch of the United Russia party for the campaign of the upcoming parliamentary elections as a refusal of support for President Putin and his formative course.

I consider it my duty to notify the Presidential Administration and the Governor of Kemerovo oblast about this.


From the Secretary of the Political Council of the local UR branch.

Are you scared yet?

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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.

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Monday, November 05, 2007

The English Estonian Blog Scene

Man, first thing I'll do when I become president of Russia? Sergei Ivanov is going to get a pink slip. "Dude, you're fired! You suck!
Giustino, some time after midnight on Saturday night, in Zavood, after about five A. Le Coqs.

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

As Good a Version as Any

Chanced upon this article (in Russian) by one Dmitri Furman, a history professor with the Russian Academy of Sciences. The man has credentials.

He also has a good point to make. He starts out by reminding us all that there's a very good chance we've only seen part of Putin's eventual plan, and that we can well expect reality to turn out completely different from what any of us expect at this point. Having recently boasted of my predictions coming true, I would like to take a moment to wholeheartedly endorse this point. Don't take my ESP for granted. :)

Dr. Furman then goes on to speculate why Putin chose the path of formal legality to remain in power. It's a good question; his recent actions have stupefied observers far more than an all-out power grab would have. Putin chose not to modify the Constitution and proclaim himself President for life, but make no mistake - he could have. A direct quote from the article:
In an imitation democracy, adhering to a Constitution that acts as a facade can result in the destabilization of the true power system. Putin's retirement in the name of sticking to the Constitution is, in this sense, a very dangerous and risky move.
So why did he do it? Why didn't he take the option that the leaders of so many former Soviet republics took, the option that the postsoviet political evolution presents so temptingly?

Furman suggests that the difference between Russia and Kazakhstan is historic pride. The countries that now have absolute rulers do not have a history of statehood, at least not in reasonably modern times. For them, the opportunity to have a nation of their own is inherently satisfying; compared to that, democracy is a nice idea that they might want to consider at some future point, once things calm down a bit.

Russia, on the other hand, has been a European superpower even before the Cold War. Ever since Peter the Great, Russia has fancied itself a civilized, modern country, perhaps with a few kinks here and there in the way they do things, but essentially part of what is now the First World. One of the hallmarks of Western civilization is democracy; turning to an obvious autocracy would be an admission of fundamental inferiority. Not only are the Russian people unwilling to be a Third World country, but Putin himself is unwilling to be the ruler of a Third World country. A power grab would render him the equal of Chavez or Mugabe, not Brown or Sarkozy.

The upshot? Putin is retaining and enforcing the framework for regime change. A Russia without an evident master is an unstable Russia, but by establishing a precedent of respect for the Constitution - no matter how flawed the hyper-presidential Constitution may be - Putin is creating the opportunity for a soft landing once he himself is out of politics.

A token effort to keep up European appearances is a token chance to invoke a European process.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Hans Rosling: Seemingly Impossible Is Possible



Seriously. You need to watch this.

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Other People's Content: On Protest

It seems to me that the underlying assumption of any public protest - any public disagreement with the government, "the system", or "the establishment", by any name - is that the men in charge of whatever it is you're protesting against are actually listening, whether they later admit it or not, and that if you run your protest Right, it will likely make a difference. [...]So in the end the very act of public protest, even violent protest, was essentially optimistic and actually a demonstration of faith (mainly subconscious, I think) in the father figures who had the power to change things - once they could be made to see the light of reason, or even political reality.
[...]
A Willingness to Argue, however violently, implies a faith of some basic kind in the antagonist, an assumption that he is still open to argument and reason and, if all else fails, then finely orchestrated persuasion in the form of political embarassment.


Hunter S. Thompson, Kingdom of Fear

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Break It

Quote of the day - applicable to several things:

There are designated angels who just might save your soul...
They give me words to live by - and that's all that I know.

If it ain't real - fake it,
If it ain't yours - take it,
If it's all gone bad - forsake it,
If it ain't broke - break it!

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Friday, June 08, 2007

Irony is delicious


A photo by Oleg Kabatov, published in the Russian edition of Esquire, of an OMON (SWAT equivalent) officer in full riot gear - including an SS logo painted on the helmet in white-out.

Preserved for posterity and easy reference whenever someone starts bitching about the swastika earring thing in Estonia way back.

It is incredible, really, how Russian propaganda is consistently undermined by Russians themselves.

Here's another one by Oleg Klimov.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Other People's Content: On Life

Couple excellent movie quotes, technically depressing ones, but they had me in fits of giggles when I heard them the first time.

From The Princess Bride:
Life is pain; anyone who says different is trying to sell you something.
And from The Departed:
'How's your mother?'
'She's on her way out.'
'We all are. Act accordingly.'

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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!

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