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.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Over at Keith and the Girl, the inimitable Patrice mentioned how Tiger Woods was particularly unwise/unfortunate to become the center of attention in December, because this is the time when nothing interesting happens. If you do anything wrong, you're the center of attention.

One person who didn't get the memo is Jüri Pihl, leader of the Social Democrats and former government minister, now the deputy mayor of Tallinn. With his party booted out of the coalition and forced into a subservient position under the Centrist control of the capital (SDE's only chance to stay even remotely relevant in Estonian politics until 2011), Pihl seems to have lost touch with reality. Following an inquiry into a minor diplomatic scandal, he submitted an application to the KaPo security service asking them to investigate the Prime Minister, Justice Minister and Foreign Minister on suspicion of treason.

The scandal at the core of events is the case of Sergei Markov, a Russian politician of dubious renoun, who claimed the credit for the DDoS attacks that considerably inconvenienced Estonian government websites following the April '07 riots. Markov's public statements earned him a ban on entry into Estonia, and by extension, any Schengen state (including the bulk of the EU). But even though Markov is a bit unpleasant, he does hold a seat in the Russian parliament, and may occasionally have legitimate business in Brussels. For whatever political reason, the government decided to lift Markov's Schengen exclusion. The decision was executed this summer, when Justice Minister Rein Lang briefly acted as head the Interior Ministry (which is responsible for visa bans) following the ejection of the Social Democrats from the cabinet. The events became public, and the papers seized the opportunity to poke at the government.

Pihl, who was the one to originally ban Markov while serving as Interior Minister, apparently took it personally. After having been questioned by KaPo as part of their inquiry into the Markov case, he submitted a written request to the counter-intelligence service, asking them to investigate PM Ansip, JM Lang and Foreign Minister Urmas Paet on charges of treason.

The document itself was leaked, apparently by the Justice Minister. The state prosecutor's office has confirmed that Lang is free to do anything he wants with a statement accusing him of a crime, including making it public. A scan of Pihl's original submission to KaPo was published on the Postimees website; I've re-hosted it here, just in case. Judge for yourself if Pihl's claim has any merit - but the Social Democrats of Estonia are convening an emergency session on Friday night, where there's a good chance that Pihl will be booted from the party chair.

My take on it? Pihl was trying to ingratiate himself to Edgar Savisaar, adopting his style, but gravely misjudged the methods and made himself look like a moron in the process.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Europe's Choice: Switzerland or Serbia?

Julien Frisch is very upset about the Swiss referendum banning minarets.

I disagree.

Julien says that a ban on minarets goes against the values of liberty, democracy and Europe. Now, I've said this before on AnTyx, but I'll say it again: as someone born in the Soviet Union, grown up in 90s Eastern Europe and now living in the EU, I think I can speak about democracy and freedom with some degree of authority. And there is an absolute, fundamental, irrefutable tenet of freedom:

Your freedom stops at the tip of my nose.

Switzerland did not ban Islam. Switzerland did not ban mosques. (And though I won't dwell on it, let's not forget that neither minarets nor even mosques are vital to the practice of Islam, that is a big part of why it's managed to thrive.) A minaret by its very intention is a thing that imposes itself on its surroundings. Not just architecturally, but socially: it exists as a platform for a cleric to call people to prayer. Five times a day, it saturates the neighborhood with sound that is unequivocally dogmatic. On that fact alone, a ban on minarets is entirely in line with European values of tolerance and coexistence. A secular state, particularly a European state, is obligated to protect its citizens from imposition of religion against their will.

I could leave it at that, but I won't. If there's a central message to everything I write on AnTyx, it is that you must know both cause and pretense; that you must not get bogged down in disingenuous arguments adopted by all sides because they are not willing to admit - often to themselves - what exactly it is that drives them.

I've done a Google search on Julien's blog for articles on Lithuania, and have found no mention of the country's deplorable anti-gay legislation. That's just one major issue I came up with, off the top of my head, simply because it's in my neighborhood. (Full disclosure: yes, Estonia isn't much better in this regard; I signed the recent petition in support of legal recognition of same-sex marriages, but I don't think it had any effect. But at least we don't have laws making it illegal to talk about LGBT in a positive light.) Another big issue that I can think of without really doing any research is the half of Cyprus that is currently occupied by Turkey. My point being: there are a lot of areas that threaten European values far more immediately than a non-EU country with a history of vehement direct democracy adopting a policy that can just as easily be implemented with a few administrative guidelines discreetly issued by whichever ministry oversees the urban planning commissions.

No, the reason why everyone suddenly cares about the Swiss referendum is because of the context, the discourse of Islam in Europe that is being actively promoted by the same caliber of activist that would torch cars and throw rocks at shop windows over a newspaper cartoon. Muslim punditry is, by far and away, the squeakiest wheel in Europe, and I dare Julien to prove me wrong.

Here is the question that critics of the Swiss ban have to ask themselves: Would you want these guys in your back yard?

European constitutions include, and European values are generally thought to contain, the protection of minorities against discrimination. I am continually astounded by how this is tragically misunderstood (and occasionally, criminally misconstrued). Democracy does not serve the interest of every citizen unequivocally. Democracy is the art of resolving conflicting interests, and it very rarely manages this to the satisfaction of all parties.

When the interest of the minority is so fundamentally at odds with the interest of the majority, the minority will simply have to be disappointed. (And when the interest of the minority is literally shouting religious propaganda from the rooftops, the minority really ought not be so surprised.)

And what is the alternative, exactly? When the double majority of the population is against something, enough to go and vote, then is it really the best course of action to condemn the un-European, discriminating bastards? Is it really so in line with the values of 21st century European civilization to force people to subdue their dislike of an ideology imposed by an aggressive minority? Do we take a nation where every adult male is legally required to own an assault rifle, and force them to live alongside the Muslims they want nothing to do with?

Because that happened, right here in Europe, less than two decades ago - and we've still got a bunch of judges in Strasbourg trying to figure out what happened.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Right and Wrong Ways of Shopping Online

Today, we shall be discussing an aspect of life in Estonia that every enterprising resident has encountered, and everyone else has at the very least bitched about: buying stuff in the US. (I'll be talking about electronics, because that's what I have experience with.)

There's a number of reasons why certain things cost a lot more in Estonia. One of them is market segmentation: the manufacturer will sell for volume in one market and for margins in another. The US consumes a huge number of goods, and there's also more competition. On this side of the Atlantic, people don't buy quite as much vacuous crap; plus there are obligations such as warranties (the EU mandates a minimum warranty of something like a year on all goods, whereas in the US you'd be lucky to get 30 days without having to pay for an "extended warranty"), taxation differences, etc. All this means that manufacturers tend to set higher prices for their goods. In fact, there's a rough rule of thumb that a product will have the same numeric price tag - in USD over there, in Euro over here.

More importantly, manufacturers are really annoyed when people circumvent these limitations. This is why US warranties are often not honoured abroad, even if the manufacturer has an official repair centre in the country and sells the exact same device locally, warranty and all. (There are differences between policy and practice - I've talked to people whose US-sourced cameras were routinely serviced at nominal or no cost by the Canon affiliate in Tartu, and I've also talked to people whose laptops with "worldwide warranties" were denied repairs because the person who brought them in was not an American on a business trip.) This is also part of the reason why Amazon.com has the line "Currently, item can be shipped only within the U.S." in the description of all of their electronic components. The other part of that reason is that Amazon has subsidiaries in Europe, and would prefer you shopped there, and paid higher margins to Amazon as well as Apple.

For Estonia specifically, there is the added problem of us being a very small market. It's mostly not worthwhile for manufacturers to set up a presence here, they just sell the franchise to a local company. The reason an iMac costs $200 more in Tallinn than in Helsinki is because the Apple stores here are actually all iDream or iDeal - local companies that buy small volumes of stock at less than Apple's best wholesale prices, then add their own costs and as much profit margin as they can get away with on top of that.

Fortunately, you can get around all of this. There are companies in Estonia that will buy an item for you in the US, ship it here, take care of all the paperwork, etc. But these schemes involve a lot of extra steps that make the goods expensive, often more expensive than an equivalent that you can get right here, so they are mostly used by people who are looking for a highly specialized niche product that simply is not available in Estonia by any other means - people for whom getting exactly what they want is more important than the cost. (I've never seen a company like this advertise its services for more than a few months at a time, so there's a good likelyhood that such companies just go out of business, or offer the opportunity as a sideline to their main revenue generator.)

These days, there are also ways to buy things from the US directly. B&H is the biggest one I've seen - a store in New York City that started out dedicated to professional photo & video equipment, but now does most of their business online. They will actually ship anything in their (quite expansive) stock anywhere in the world, including Estonia - and if you choose a slightly more expensive shipping method, they will even have their partners deal with customs on your behalf.

Both of the options above, however, involve paying customs duties. It still makes sense on some purchases - the B&H site was pointed out to me by someone who wanted to buy a Canon 50D semi-professional camera, 13 700 EEK delivered to Estonia versus 16 800 EEK at a local supplier. But the true bargain hunter will want to bypass the Tolli- ja Maksuamet entirely.

Here we come to the bit that made me write this entire article. Because in buying electronics from the US, there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way.

The Right Way is to find an acquaintance who happens to be going to the US for whatever reason, and ask them to bring back the gadget for you. I brought a MacBook Pro back for a friend this summer - even with Washington DC's sales tax and whatever SEB charged me to use my credit card abroad, the final cost out of my bank account was 14 000 EEK and change; even half a year later, the same model in Estonia costs over 18 000. The first time I went to the US - years ago - I was bringing back not just the MP3 player and digital camera I got for myself, but a suitcase full of special equipment for my employer's technical support center, and a snowboard. (The snowboard was for a colleague who was returning to Estonia a week later, but couldn't bring it himself because he was already carrying a full desktop tower PC and a huge, professional CRT monitor.)

The Wrong Way, if you're buying anything expensive, is to get it from eBay and have it shipped to you privately.

Postal packages have a declared value for their contents. If the value is below 150 Euro, the Estonian customs authorities won't even look at it - this means that you can buy books, CDs and DVDs from Amazon.com without any trouble. (Actually, even purchases from Amazon's main site will be shipped from the German warehouse half the time if the delivery address is within the EU, but that doesn't happen every time and you shouldn't count on it.)

If the declared value of the package is more than 150 Euro, it will be subject to import duties, equal to the local VAT. 20% right now, but it was 18% years ago, when I was receiving a shipment from India containing spare parts for two thousand inflatable dildos. (It's a long story.) There's also an administration fee attached - the threshold used to be a lot less than 150 Euro, so I've been in a situation where the fee was more than the tax itself. You can find the full set of customs rules for postal packages here, or a partial bad translation into English here.

Finally, here's the Really Wrong Way: you can buy an expensive piece of goods in the States (or on eBay), and try to outsmart the Customs Board. You can have the goods delivered to a friend in the US, who will resend them to you directly, marking them as a gift and declaring a very minor value. Murphy's Law dictates that the package will be lost in transit (more likely than not, stolen by a postal worker en route - a friend in Canada has taken to labeling all his packages "educational materials" on the assumption that the same Canadian posties who appropriate expensive-looking boxes are fundamentally uninterested in education), at which point the international postal system will either shrug, or refund the sender the $1 declared value of the package and tell him to have a nice day.

Then you can do the thing that is not just Wrong, but annoying, the thing that a friend of mine has been whining about all day: buy an expensive piece of electronics via a third-party vendor on eBay, have the vendor declare the package as a gift, then explode in righteous indignation when the Customs Board says, "no, this is actually something you bought, so yes, you'll have to pay the equivalent of Estonia's VAT on it". If, as my friend, you've also selected a private delivery service such as FedEx and UPS and didn't want to pay them to deal with Customs on your behalf, you'll also experience all the joy of getting a bureaucratic institution governed by bysanthine local and international regulations to pay attention to you as an individual - exactly the sort of entity that a Customs authority has absolutely no interest in accomodating.

What annoys me isn't the attempt to get around the Customs rules. The Estonian version of the regulations has a paragraph that specifically addresses eBay purchases with a dubious declared value: A non-commercial package is a goods package that is sent by a private party from a third (non-EEC) country to an EEC resident on an ad hoc basis, contains only goods intended for the personal use of the recipient and his family (such as gifts), whose type and quantity do not indicate a commercial purpose, and which the sender is sending to the recipient for free. (My translation, their emphasis.) Thus, an iMac that the recipient's American cousin received, unboxed, played around with, placed back in the box and sent to Estonia along with pictures of the cousin's new baby and a bag of home-baked chocolate chip cookies is something the authorities should not be taxing. An iMac sent by someone for whose effort you paid, is not a gift or a delivery of your own property - it is a purchase, and as any purchase in Estonia, it is subject to local VAT. (For bonus morality, see this site, which talks about state sales tax on Internet purchases in the US in terms of whether the recipient is benefitting from the services provided by the state and paid for by the taxes.)

I am annoyed by people who claim some sort of ideological high ground for downloading movies & music from the Internet - "information must be free", "copyright is unfair" etc.: just admit that you're doing it because you can, it's convenient and there's an infinetisimal chance of ever getting caught. In the same way, I am annoyed by people who claim the Customs Board is being unfair to them by not accepting their argument that an eBay transaction somehow constitutes a delivery of personal-use property, not a purchase of goods from a commercial seller. It's disingenuous, and it makes you look like a twat.

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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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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Reverse Nimby

I was looking through a bit of junk mail the other day, and saw a piece of really good translation in the Maxima supermarket chain's circular. Accurate, idiomatic, native - something this type of publication never seems to boast. For a while, I thought I might actually be starting to get my faith in humanity back. Obviously that didn't last.

Someone commented on a recent post that I am at my blogging best when I'm angry. Well, buckle up, cause you're in for a treat.

I first heard about the arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland from the Keith and the Girl podcast. I didn't pay too much attention to it, although I was a bit surprised at the fact that the French Foreign and Culture Ministers saw fit to publicly decry the US-requested arrest, and that representatives of the Swiss film community in effect said they were ashamed of the behaviour of their government. As the story made its way around the news sites and opinions started to come in, I became ever more astounded.

You can get the details elsewhere, but briefly, the facts of the case are these: in 1977, Roman Polansky, then in his mid-40s, was doing a photoshoot of a 13-year-old girl for a magazine. He gave her alcohol and drugs, and raped her. He was arrested, and pleaded guilty. After the conviction, but before the sentencing hearing, he left the US and went to France, which would not extradite him.

Now, a bunch of filmmakers have signed a petition against his extradition. And their argument is that he should not made to serve his sentence, because... he's such a great filmmaker.

Now, we already knew Woody Allen was a pervert. But other people are defending Polansky as well. Including people I know; people for whom I had a lot more respect before today.

It is a subset of a phenomenon I've seen before, the reverse of the Not In My Back Yard syndrome. Let me give you an example. A few years ago I was hanging out at the local Honda forum, and there was a thread about a particularly bad car crash. The party at fault had been pretty clear from the news reports, a forum member who had been driving extremely stupidly. The posters were all saying how much of an idiot he was... until one of them got offended, saying he was the driver's close friend. And to my utter dismay, the others apologized.

I've seen the same behaviour in other places, too - while growing up in Lasnamäe. No matter how evil someone had been, it was unacceptable to say anything to the effect of "he got what he deserved" or "I hope they put him in jail" in the presence of someone who'd been close friends with the bastard. You don't talk shit about my friend. The classic NIMBY is the desire for something particular to happen, but somewhere else, not in the vicinity of the subject himself, where it would have a chance of inconveniencing him. And the reverse NIMBY is the sort of mentality where justice and morals suddenly become relative, and mercy or consideration needs to be applied exceptionally, simply because the accused is someone you like.

Or someone whose movies you like.

Yes, Polansky does not appear to be an actual pedophile (there was no report of sexual abuse on his behalf before the incident or since). And yes, his wife was murdered by a serial killer while pregnant with their baby. And yes, the girl in question was someone who'd been in the adult world at the time, and was probably already sexually active, and her mother was a malevolent stage parent type who put her in harm's way. And yes, Polansky fled the country after he'd learned that he would probably be going to jail, instead of the psychiatric treatment and probation he expected to get. And yes, he'd been an Auschwitz prisoner. And yes, he made some great films.

But this was not statutory rape; this was not overreaction by the parents of an early-bloomer sixteen-year-old who was fooling around with her nineteen-year-old steady boyfriend. This was a 44-year-old man drugging a 13-year-old girl and violently raping her while she was begging him to stop. And if you can, in your heart, find any crumb of justification or excuse for Roman Polansky's actions, then you fail as a human being.

Roman Polansky must be extradited to the US, sentenced in court, and forced to serve a real jail sentence, and to suffer through whatever happens in jail to men who rape thirteen-year-olds. And if he dies in jail, I will not shed a tear. Because maybe all that will mean that some years from now, the threat and inevitability of punishment, even for someone with money, connections and public admiration, will serve to prevent another monstrous lapse of judgement, and another little girl's life will not be shattered.

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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, March 10, 2009

Hate Session

Postimees writes about a survey in Latvia whose results suggest that most of the country's population believe in creationism.

The survey company, its responders, the author of the Postimees article and the on-call editor who approved the piece for online publication should all go and kill themselves, to spare the human race the effect of their gene pool.

While I'm on a hate spree, I should also mention this person. I've seen the blog linked from somewhere before; you can see that I've commented, but honestly can't be bothered to any more. The author has no idea of Estonia's economic structure, seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that Estonia has negligible public debt, and does not comprehend the difference between losing money that you had and losing money that you owe. The only reason why I'm even mentioning it is because I am so fucking tired of these goddamn experts, be it bloggers, or analysts from the likes of Danske Bank and Moody's, looking at Estonia and yelling "DOOOOOOOOM!!!" like so much bad fantasy plot exposition.

In a way, the analysts annoy me more. These are the same bastards who gave AAA ratings to junk mortgages that my pension fund then invested in. And now they have the balls to come and tell us that we've fucked up?

Coincidentally, I just got a press release from the Estonian Central Bank mentioning a fresh IMF report. The link is to a brief summary which seems far more credible in its objectivity; the IMF directors are saying that there are significant risks in Estonia, but that the state's fiscal policy has been quite clever and we're right to dedicate our immediate activities to Eurozone accession.

Now, who do you believe more?

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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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Monday, January 19, 2009

The entertainment has begun.

This year we have two sets of elections: Europarliament, and then municipal. The former are only marginally relevant, the latter far more so.

The Center Party, displaying a fundamental lack of constructive criticism or, indeed, any actual thought at all, launched the first ad campaign, plastering Tallinn with ads saying that the policies of IRL and Reform have led to inflation and increases in the cost of living.

Somebody, and nobody has admitted it yet, put stickers over the KERA posters saying "this shit cost 1.5 million kroons". Which is hilarious.

KERA now claims the actual cost was half that. Missing the point completely.

This election season is going to be fun.

UPDATE: Postimess has called my attention to the fact that Savisaar has replied to an invitation by Mart Laar, leader of IRL and the architect of Estonia's economic system, to an open debate.

Edgar starts out by pointing out the humour of two supposed historians talking about economics. Well damn, Edgar, both of you are former Prime Ministers, and both of you want to run this country - I'd damn well expect both of you to have an understanding of economy!

He then goes on to say that a blog is no place to throw down the gauntlet; that it is a private diary, meant for only a few close friends. Tell me, Edgar you decrepid fart, why is your blog hosted on the Keskerakond website and linked prominently from its home page?

It gets even more interesting: "I understand why Laar wants to debate, but why should I do it? Who is Mart Laar right now? He's not the leader of the coalition, he isn't even a minister in the coalition. Whether I like it or not, my debate partner in this governing union is Ansip, not Laar."

To which the inevitable response is, who the fuck are you, Edgar? You're not even an MP. You're a mayor, and the chairman of a party that has a bunch of parliament seats. We don't have an official opposition in this country; nobody owes you anything. What you are, however, is a politician in an election year; and Laar is another politician, who is fairly prominent and guaranteed to have news coverage. You should be loving the attention of a public debate with the person you've criticized so continuously (your 750,000 EEK poster campaign was targeted at Laar's IRL party as well). Are you really so devoid of any point or platform that you would pass up such an excellent opportunity for publicity?

Do you really have nothing to say, to Laar or to the Estonian voters?

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

What the fuck is Edicy?

Brace yourselves: this is going to be another tech rant.

Edicy is one of a number of startups funded by Ambient Sound Investments, which in turn is the corporate invocation of the enormous pile of money received by the four Estonians who were in on the ground floor of Skype. I only became aware of it because of a fellow Esto-blogger who got hired to work for them.

What Edicy does, ostensibly, is give you a nice, simple web page editor. It's all done inside the browser, in a cute Web 2.0 sort of way. You know - widgets. Awesome! I thought. It was about time for me to add a page to antyx.net advertising my freelance translation and documentation services, and with Edicy, I could use a very clean and well-color-coded template, just typing in my own text. It even had a rudimentary blog engine, though obviously I didn't need that. I muddled around with the page creator for a bit, but there were bugs in the interface, and I couldn't see what I could do with the page, except leave it there as a numbered placeholder. And, as usual, I was wondering how these folks intended to actually make money off the product.

It is said that history repeats itself thrice: once as a tragedy, again as a comedy, and furthermore for the dumbasses who didn't get the point yet. Time has passed from that early beta stage, and now Edicy is a full-on product. And the product it is, is goddamn Geocities.



Remember Geocities? Cast your mind's eye a decade back, when Al Gore had just invented the Internet, and we were all eager to grab a part of that action. The premier way to leave a mark was to have a Geocities homepage, where you could use a pink swirl image as a repeating background, a MIDI for background music, and post pictures of yourself and your goddamn motherfucking cat.

Geocities was the tragedy. MySpace was the comedy.

(Full disclosure: I might have gotten a Geocities page, but I never really used it. Even back then, I was 1337 enough to code my homepage in Notepad.)

Edicy is Act Three. In their current, presumably finished state, they will let you make a mostly-text page with some nifty browser-based tools. Except you can't do much with it when you're done. What I expected is some sort of export facility, where they would give you an index.html and a folder with all the images and CSS files, with relative paths in the code, so you can simply upload it to wherever you want. Ideally they'd have some sort of generic hosting integration, where you give them your FTP details and they do all the hard work - kind of like I use the Blogger engine to automatically publish static HTML pages to the antyx.net webhost. No setup or knowledge of PHP and chmod required.

Edicy won't let you do any of that. Instead, you have three options. You can publish your page at prefix.edicypages.com - just as the easiest way to use Blogger is to have a prefix.blogspot.com. That's fine for blogs, but personal homepages died out mercifully with the first dotcom crash. The online presence of a regular person these days is on facebook, which doesn't offer an easy-to-remember URL, but does offer a lot of other vastly superior interaction tools (including a perfectly functional search by name, gender and general vicinity). If you have your own website, it will probably be for some kind of business promotion purposes, and at that point you better fucking have your own domain name. It's 2009, you bastard. Godaddy will get you a domain for seven bucks, and webspace is cheaper than toilet paper.

This isn't even Googlepages, which at least has some air of fanboyism about it. I don't approve of Google worship, but at least I understand the mechanism of trying to attach oneself to the aura. But this is Edicypages, and what the fuck is Edicy?

Of course, you don't have to stick to edicypages, just like you don't have to stick to blogspot. Except here's the big difference: Blogger will let you do things with your blog for free. If I wasn't already paying for hosting, I could point the antyx.net domain to Blogger's servers, and none of you would notice a difference, or care. But I have this overarching feeling that the way a blog engine is supposed to work is to generate static HTML that gets published on a webserver that I control, so I do that. It means I can't use some of the newest Blogger widgets, but it's a free service and the important functionality is still there, so I don't especially give a shit.

But Edicy is not like Blogger; it's not one of those Web 2.0, advertising-supported ideas that I loathe so much and criticize for not having a discernible source of revenue. Oh no. Just as Skype charges its users to call regular phones, Edicy will offer its pageholders a premium commercial service.

Enter Edicy Pro. For a small fee, they will host your text-and-images homepage and make it accessable from any domain (that you have to buy separately, of course). They will even let you download the page! And give you priority support!

And the cost? Depending on the length of your commitment, 4-5 Euro per month.

MOTHERFUCKER.

My own web host, the unassailably awesome Tantum.ee, will give you a gig of web space and 25 gigs of traffic per month for eight euro a year. By broadband standards, a gig doesn't seem like a lot, but let me put this into perspective: I only changed up from their cheapest package when the site first got slashdotted and I ran into the traffic cap, which back then was something like 3gb per month. And yes, their hosting package does include a site builder.

Also, I checked: the output of the Edicy page builder is clean HTML. You might need to grab their CSS files as well, but otherwise, open your prefix.edicypages.com page, View Source and save to Notepad.

I mean no offense to Sehr, and I certainly appreciate that they have thought about revenue sources, but OMFG, this is preposterous. Makes me wonder about the whole ASI incubator: the other startup of theirs that I am aware of is a self-customizing RSS feed.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Vladivostok 2008



Providing that you still have a stable income, you've probably seen mostly good things from the global financial crisis. The most obvious benefit is the price of oil, which has lost two thirds of its peak value. It's a good thing for us, but it's been playing havoc in Russia, where the state suddenly no longer has near-unlimited disposable income to pacify discontent. The Russian budget is designed with a market price of $70/barrel in mind; I've seen numbers that suggest a fall to $30 in 2009 would create a budget deficit big enough to swallow up all of Russia's foreign-exchange reserves. Even with oil at $40-45, and a fundamentally uncompetitive industrial base, the Russian economy is screeching to a halt. People are already quite unhappy.

One of the things that the Kremlin has done is try to protect the car industry. The VAZ factory, one of the biggest integrated manufacturing facilities in the world, has only survived on lasting demand in the domestic market because of trade tariffs. Importing a three-year-old family hatchback into Russia will cost several thousand Euro just in excise fees. Anything older than seven years old is prohibitively expensive - and yet a VW Golf that's spent a decade trundling along the autobahns and villages of Westfalia is still immeasurably superior to a factory-fresh Lada.

Still, not everyone in Russia buys Russian cars. A number of assembly plants have opened inside the country, some - like the Ford factory - providing not only jobs but subcontracts to local parts suppliers, others simply attaching bumpers and seats to semi-knocked-down vehicles to satisfy a loophole. But there is another source of cars in Russia: Japanese imports.

Russia's a ridiculously big place, and a lot of it is quite remote, but probably the most isolated city is Vladivostok. Established largely as a base for imperial Russia's Pacific fleet, it is located in the southeastern corner of the country, closer to China, North Korea and Japan than any other significant Russian enclave. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of infrastructure, Vladivostok turned out to be of little interest to anyone out west. The population, some half a million people, survived through a single revenue stream. Vladivostok became the staging area for used Japanese cars, popular throughout Siberia, but as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg as well. Japanese tax laws mean that keeping cars past a certain age is more expensive than replacing them, so there is a steady stream of perfectly serviceable vehicles that need to be taken off the island. China and Korea have their own auto manufacturing industries, Australia is too far for shipping, but Vladivostok is right there - and a five-year-old Toyota that was a salaryman's pride and joy beats the hell out of a domestic deathtrap, even if the wheel is on the wrong side.

One way or the other, everyone in Vladivostok earns a living from the steady stream of cars being loaded onto freight trains and shipped westwards. So when new tariffs were announced, to be introduced from the beginning of 2009 and shutting down the nearly-new import business almost completely, the city would not have it. When Putin and Medvedev said they'd replace the Russian East's Nipponese fleet with discount Ladas, it was received as an insult.

People took to the streets. As a response, Moscow sent its crack troops: the Ministry of the Interior's own, personal SWAT team. On December 20th, after earlier protests, the people of Vladivostok assembled in a central square, around a Christmas tree, and sang carols. Understanding the rules of the game, they did not bring anti-government banners or bullhorns. As long as the crowd didn't get overtly hostile or political, the local law enforcement would not stop them; everyone in the city was equally worried.

Except the federal government could not tolerate any organization, any large mass of people standing up for their rights. On December 20th, the cops on scene were not locals, but OMON Zubr. This was Moscow SWAT, the same group used to guard international summits and crack the skulls of marching skinheads.

When, shortly after the Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn, the Kremlin roughly shut down opposition protests in its big cities, it was an ironic contrast to their accusations against Estonia. But I said back then that we should not be complaining too loudly about the treatment of the Marches of the Dissenters, as they were called; most of the people involved were decidedly unpleasant characters, with whom we emphatically did not need to align ourselves. The actions of the federal police at that point showed simply that Russia had no moral right to complain about anyone else; they were no better.

But the protesters in Vladivostok were not neonazis or anarchist radicals, nor even people with a deep-seated hate of the Putin administration. These were apolitical folks, enraged not by propaganda, but by a howlingly terrible decision that would rob them of their livelihood. It wasn't even the result of incompetence or mismanagement, nor the loss of windfall oil profits, that was going to do them in, but a conscious decision by the ruling clique to protect a rotten industry that is spewing inferior product, which nobody in their right mind would buy, given a choice. The people of Vladivostok had every right to take to the streets; and the central government's reaction proved that they aren't just no better than us - they are, self-evidently, far, far worse.



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Photo source, video source. Bonus story: the moderator of Russian LiveJournal's biggest car community apparently was contacted by the FSB and asked nicely to delete any posts about the import tariff protests.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

New Heights in Social Awkwardness

The unwillingness of Estonians to make eye contact and generally acknowledge each other's existence in common everyday interactions is a matter of lore. But some bastions of humanity remain, in the form of supermarket sampler counters. You get a little plastic bowl of salad or a toothpick with a piece of meat or cheese on it, and the counter is staffed by people who restock the selection. These are generally sociable and extrovert people who will happily prattle at you, praising the merchandise, inviting you to come over and try, and then telling you where to find the stuff on the shelves if you decide you liked it.

Went into Selver today, and there was a sampler counter with a whole bunch of tiny salad bowls on it, but no attendants. The management had decided to spare people the discomfort of acknowledging a human being when they're getting their free stuff, so instead they put up a suggestion box and a stack of paper slips where you could write if you liked the new kind of salad or not.

Wow.

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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?

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Early Onset S.A.D.

I don't suppose anyone should be surprised that the Juhi Nagu Ansip thing is a Keskerakond creation, although I am a bit underwhelmed by the text content in the Estonian version. The silly season has started again, a full year before the next relevant election - local councils will get their reshuffle on October 18th next year. Before that we have the EU parliamentary elections in the summer. That's essentially an opportunity for senior political figures to get kicked upstairs. A soft landing for people you really don't want to be messing around with local politics any more.



Ansip's support is down massively. I think the only thing keeping him in power right now is momentum, and the mutual hatred between Savisaar and Laar. Ansip got into the top seat almost by accident, as the minority PM in a mostly KERA cabinet, after Res Publica finally shat itself; he was acceptable because he was irrelevant on the scene up to that time, drawn from the party list after Siim Kallas took his alleged ten-million-dollar ass down to Brussels. No coalition with Savisaar as the Prime Minister would have been tolerated then, and none will be now, but there's no way in almighty fuck that Edgar will be the number two to Mart Laar.



Meanwhile it has been less than two years since the parliamentary elections, and Ansip has squandered away not only his own mandate, but the credibility of the Reform party as well. Part of his support was the anti-Russia vote, but Reform are the blokes we turn to when the economy needs to be sorted. The balanced budget was a landmark, and failing to get one done for 2009 is a failure in what people entrusted the governing party to do. We don't care what sort of creative regulation or back-room wrangling with EU commissioners you need to do: we just want to cast our vote and have you lot sort it. When the real estate market imploded, the initial reaction was they had it coming. Estonians love their Schadenfreude, and seeing developers and speculators lose their shirts made us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Plus there was a chance we'd all afford better homes now. But then the world financial system imploded, and suddenly it's all doom and gloom. Estonia is still in a far better position to survive the crisis than a lot of New Europe (and some of Old, in fact), but Reform was supposed to sprinkle their magic fairy dust and allow this country to fiddle while the rest of the world's economy burned. Without that, it's time to start playing "Pin the tail on the squirrel".



Meanwhile I'm hoping that Edgar will run for MEP, and if he does, I am absolutely not kidding, I will vote for him. The existence of the Centrist party as an object of shared hatred is necessary to the balance of Estonian politics, but those people really need to get rid of Great Uncle and start thinking about a platform. Savisaar has aged badly, and seems to be accelerating in his decline into the sort of dementia last seen in the early-80s parade of short-lived Secretary Generals of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Hardly a day goes by without Edgar or one of his lieutenants doing a Nelson Muntz impression. YOU'RE NOT HELPING! Opposition needs to be constructive, and the only words coming out of Edgar's mouth when inflation spiked were "let's borrow money and spend it, and that will make everything better"; shortly followed by the howlingly moronic plan to institute special grocery shops where people will be able to buy food at a discount, compensated by the municipal budget. Yes, that's right: Edgar's suggestion for people not having enough money to buy food is to take people's money and pay a lot of bureaucrats to hand some of the money back to them. Seriously: go suck on a Werther's Original.

Again, opposition needs to be constructive, not malicious. The electorate already has malice covered.

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HP FAIL

Wow.

I got my top-spec HP Mininote from the States a few months before they were available in Estonia (and at a useful discount, too). I love it, but its one weakness is the crappy Via C7-M CPU. Otherwise it's awesome: loads of storage (120gb), loads of memory (2gb), very good keyboard, outstanding screen, quite decent battery life, and the all-metal body rocks.

I'd been waiting for them to announce the next version, expecting a shift to the Via Nano - a competitor to the Intel Atom chip that seemed every bit as good in tests. With more CPU power, and Via's superior power-management expertise (the C7-M is meant to compete with ULV Celerons, and blows them out of the water) the Mininote MkII would have been the ultimate portable machine.

Instead, what HP has done with the MkII is fix the one weakness the old model had, and make it inferior to the old model in every other way. Worse screen, worse battery life, less storage, less RAM, plastic case... Way to FAIL.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Creative Traffic

This summer has seen a lot of roadbuilding activity in Tartu, including some of the busiest intersections. The first one to be comprehensively rearranged was the traffic circle at the end of Riia, a thoroughfare used by town traffic, shoppers headed for the nearby mall (there is really a ridiculous amount of them in Tartu), and commuters from the counties to the south. Whereas previously the traffic arrangement on the Riia Ring consisted of gunning it and hoping for the best, the new solution involves abundant directions on which lane goes where. There is a strong priority for people going from downtown to the mall and back, which has made the circle a lot more efficient. A few hundred meters away is the Aardla cicrle, which has heavily rebuilt to allow people to turn right without ever getting in the way of the other cars.

This sort of creative traffic management has now made its way to the other major hubs of Tartu traffic, and when combined with the apparent lack of foresight and coordination (which I'm sure Mingus will be happy to discuss with you at length), it has resulted in some very odd patterns.

The Sõpruse circle is definitely one of Tartu's busiest intersections, since almost every bit of traffic headed to the Annelinn bedroom community has to go through it. Over the summer, bits of it were closed off for major alterations. City planners attempted to surgically separate particular traffic flows and direct them down separate paths, wherever possible - but they didn't have the money for a multi-level cloverleaf like the one that has sprung up in Riga. So now you can turn both onto and off the bridge, making right turns, via dedicated lanes - so dedicated they are actually physically separated from the ones joining the circular traffic. And those, too, are separated from each other just before the circle.

It's confusing at the best of times, but some plausible manouvers have become downright dangerous. If I'm coming off the bridge and want to get to the Eeden mall (yes, there is a mall at every intersection in Tartu), I can either take the back road that leads to Ihaste, the slipway up to the top floor of Eeden's parking lot, the turnoff to the bottom floor, or either of two physically separated lanes that turn right onto Kalda tee - one that bypasses the circle traffic, and one that cuts through it.

On the face of it, this isn't too bad - a lot of people want to turn right off the bridge on weekday nights, and the tailbacks used to be stupendous. But there are at least two manouvers that have been made a lot more dangerous by this new arrangement. First, if I want to exit either the bottom floor of the Eeden parking lot or the Neste gas station, and join the circle, I have to completely across three lanes of cars flying off the bridge at the better part of 70 km/h, and then make a sharp 90 degree turn at the last second - I can't cut the corner because otherwise I will clip the safety island that separates the leftmost lane from the next one. And a lot of people want to do this: the other way of getting out of Eeden involves circling behind the big construction store next to it (yes, Tartu is a hotbed of consumption, deal with it). Or you could take your chances doing a U-turn on Kalda tee - which requires both practice and a car with a pretty tight turning radius.

The other dangerous manouver is if I want to go into either Eeden or the gas station while coming off the circle, from any direction except the bridge. Two lanes come off the circle onto Kalda tee, but there is another lane immediately to the right, the separate one off the bridge. The turn-in for Eeden and Neste is right there. I have to swerve rapidly to the right, cutting across the path of the people happily accelerating through the awesome new separate lane.

There's a similar trick with the entrance to the new Tasku mall's parking lot. It's a slipway just before the other busy car bridge in Tartu, and there is a right turn from Turu street onto the bridge. The streetlight pattern won't let you turn right from Turu at the same time as the main traffic flow from Riia, but you are indeed supposed to merge at the same time as the left-turn crowd from the direction of the new Kaubamaja. How long before two cars decide to occupy the same physical space in front of the Tasku parking slipway?

There is more odd traffic management elsewhere. There are now two lanes to turn left from the Riia bridge onto Turu; very useful at relieving a perpetual tailback, but they did it without widening the road, instead making all the lanes narrower. So now a bus or lorry just barely fits into a lane. I'm sure they will end up clipping other vehicles sooner rather than later. On Narva mnt, turning left from Raatuse, the road markings tell you to make a sharp 90-degree turn in the inner lane, instead of cutting the corner along a completely unused patch of asphalt (which everyone does, anyway).

Did anyone think this through properly?

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Monday, September 01, 2008

No, It Really Is Your Fault

There is an old saying: every people end up with the leader they deserve. In Russian, it is the basis for a moderately clever wordplay, making the point that every people get buggered by their leader.

As the West's prime ideologue for the New Cold War, Edward Lucas is the natural pointman for Europe's backlash over the Georgia war. On his blog this weekend is a ready reckoner for the powers-that-be to express their disapproval. I draw your attention to point six:
Stop talking about "Russia" (except where journalistic convention demands it). These guys aren't Russia. They are criminal gang of bullies, crooks and murderers who have hijacked Russia.
This is a widely held opinion. It is also absolutely, inexcusably wrong. This assertion is so wrong, in fact, that it is past misguided - it is actively harmful.

I've said this before: the Russian mentality does not include a sense of immediate responsibility. The Western model of society is founded on the concept of citizens delegating their power to representatives; there is an implied obligation by the citizen to watch whom he hands over his power to. This is a very basic idea, and the entire philosophy of democracy and civil liberty is no more than guidelines to applying it in typical situations. And yes, this idea is applicable to Russia, because it is a country with a strong and proud revolutionary history. Russians have proven that when they are propery unhappy with their rulers, the rulers are going down.

Many Russians feel uncomfortable with the actions of their state, and they excuse themselves by imploring others not to equate the Russian people with the Russian government. I am disappointed in Edward Lucas for perpetuating this intellectual farce. They would have us believe that all the evil and injustice of Russia is down to the Chekists, or the Bolsheviks, or the Jews. But the bastards are only in the Kremlin because the common Russian people put them there. Every bullet through the brain of a journalist, every conscript beaten into a bloody pulp by his sergeant, every mortar round fired at a North Caucasus village, is the responsibility of every single Russian who did not march on Red Square and stay there until the thugs were hauled out of the government offices by the scruffs of their necks.

Only when individual Russians learn to take personal responsibility for actions taken on their behalf will Russia be a country that can be approached with Western terms.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Local News

Estonians are buying up Georgian wines in a show of support. Best thing you can do, really - guaranteed to benefit the Georgian nation rather than any political movement, so it is good irrespective of any doubts you might have as to who caused what. In conflicts such as South Ossetia, no side is ever completely innocent. I recommend the Akhasheni Marani, should be available in Selvers - a very good semi-sweet red.

Parliament is about to go into an emergency session to draft a joint statement on Georgia. An emergency session can be called with support from no less than a fifth of the Riigikogu (21 members). The session has been endorsed by all represented parties, except for Keskerakond. Vilja Savisaar's official statement to the press was, let's wait and see and gather information and not rush into things. Wouldn't do to piss off the Russians.

UPDATE 1: Meanwhile, Ansip is trying to get to Georgia. Might just be PR for now, but if he does show up in Thbilisi, that'll be a great move on his part. Compensating for political ineptitude with personal bravery; could be worse, and he's doing the right thing when it counts. A commenter on Postimees: "When the Russians came here, did anybody help out?" That is exactly why we need to be involved in Georgia.

UPDATE 2: There is a humanitarian aid flight being put together by Estonian Air, the Red Cross and various other local relief agencies. The Estonian Reserve Officers' Association is apparently putting together a team of 90 volunteers that will be on the flight and will distribute the humanitarian aid, as well as help out relief efforts on the ground. The email that I saw specifically mentioned that the group would absolutely not be involved in combat, but otherwise should be prepared for anything, including hostile fire. The email also says that perhaps the presense of Estonian reservist volunteers in Georgia will serve as inspiration to NATO. I haven't really heard of the group before, but it is certainly a good sentiment.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

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, July 17, 2008

Intermission: Oh for fuck's sake, just deal with it.

Looked at the front page of Baltlantis today, and saw this hapless jeremiad. This has been such a staple of American bitching stereotypes that it's not even amusing any more, just annoying.

(The following is best read to a background of German outfit H-Blockx's seminal punk anthem, "This is not America".)

Water parks in Estonia, like pretty much everywhere in Europe, frown upon swimming shorts. There are, historically, some valid reasons for it. Swimming shorts seem to have been designed in California, with the express purpose of wearing them as swimmable outerwear; you get out of the ocean, they dry out very quickly, and you can be on your way. I have a pair that I got at an Orange County Target a few years ago. They have both external pockets, big enough to fit, say, a wallet, and a conveniently secure inner pocket, which can store, say, a car key. By their very design, swimming shorts encourage being worn about town, to the drinks vendor, to the corner shop, etc. In the summer - and yes, Estonian summers do get hot enough to warrant this, however briefly and occasionally - it is not unreasonable to expect people to get out of their apartments in swim shorts and a T-shirt (or not), walk down to the beach or pool, and have a dip. If we're talking about Anne Kanal here, it's a perfectly legitimate and pleasant passtime.

This, however, has gotten some of the more sun-soaked European countries riled up about possible hygiene issues. The thinking is that shorts worn on the street are likely to bring bacteria or other contaminants into the swimming pools (especially ones less enthusiastic with the chlorine than Kalev). There is also the chance that you will forget some keys or coins in the pockets of your shirts, and they will end up fucking with the pumps and filters. So while I'm not sure if there is an actual EU directive proscribing swimming shorts, there is certainly a prevailing opinion.

For what it's worth, I've worn my Target shorts to the Aura swimming pool in Tartu and have never seen anyone take up issue with them; not for me, not for my friends, not for the stable minority of swimmers who choose to come to Aura in non-speedo gear. I'm fairly sure though that I would be stopped if I wore the shorts to the actual water park bit of it, the bit with the slides. People have been given a legitimate, sensible reason for this limitation: swimming shorts often have metal rivets, almost always have exposed seams, and without fail have loose legs. All of these could potentially generate friction and/or snagging on a water slide; however small the chance, the water park does not want the liability, and that's their right.

What's really annoying though is Mrs. Gonzalez's proud, militant, American ignorance. First of all, there is nothing wrong with Speedos: they are a superior choice for swimming, because they provide far less resistance than flappy shorts - the reason why even in genitalia-shy America, they are the choice of professional athletes. The assertion that she is unduly stressed by the vague outlines of male reproductive organs is, frankly, ludicrous. She mentions a husband in the article, so being married, presumably she has indeed seen what a penis looks like and what it can do. Dear Dana: this is not Utah. It is Estonia, a country with a sauna culture, where children grow up knowing that it is perfectly possible for people of opposite sexes to be naked in the same room without an orgy ensuing. Oh, and our age of consent is 14. Doesn't that just shock you?

We are human males, Mrs. Gonzalez. Near enough all of us do indeed possess both penises and testicles. Even, believe it or not, the President of America. If you can't stand the wienerfest, get out of the water.

And for fuck's sake, stop complaining about pool staff doing their jobs. Oh, you say they should rummage through your bags and/or require you to present swimming gear at the counter? How about, instead, and this is just a thought, you follow the fucking rules that you are perfectly well aware of, and stop expecting people to accomodate you just because you're American?

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Shenanigans Protracted

Had to spend two and a half hours in a doctor's office for my semi-annual labour law checkup. (A backdoor way of getting Estonians in to see the doc at least occasionally, I suppose.) Came across the Center Party leaflet inside the morning's Postimees, and gave it a pass. Apparently though today is a slow news day, so the Postimees website is bitching about it. (They have no qualms about taking Savisaar's money for distribution; and in fact, I imagine they used the deal to prepare indignant commentary once the paper edition makes the rounds.)

Savisaar's big idea this time is to a)recognize Russia as a modern, positive-thinking state so they give us the oil transit back, and b)restrict food prices, pegging the cost of groceries to the national average salary and/or creating municipal grocery stores with below-market prices.

The latter is a page directly out of Vladimir Putin's book, so blatant it's startling. Without the sort of control that the Russian government has over its businesses, and without the pile of oil cash that the Russian government is sitting upon - and even then - artificially restricting food prices will only lead to a shortage in official channels and an overpriced black market - because the producers will not sell at below cost. Besides which, this is an authoritarian move far beyond anything even Ansip has ever concocted. In a free state with a free market, it is inexcusable. For a country that prides itself on successfully disentangling itself from the monster of Soviet plan economy and undertakes to teach others, it is a suggestion whose mere utterance is shameful.

On the other hand, the paper edition did include a curious little op-ed from Keit Pentus of the Reform party (I keep wondering if she's related to Sten Pentus, the racing driver - I'm sure one of the readers knows?). She proposes to cap the income subject to social tax.

If you don't know how the Estonian tax system works, here's the point. The salary number you get in your employment contract is subject to income tax; the cash you get in hand is that number minus 21% (and dropping), and a couple of other minor deductions like the mandatory, regulated, but private pension fund. Additionally, the employer pays 33% of the contract amount in social tax. So the cost to the employer is actually a third higher than the negotiated salary. The employee gets about 57% of what the employer spends. In the spirit of E-stonian E-fficiency, here is a handy online calculator for employment costs.

For income tax, there is a deductible minimum: the first 2250 EEK you earn each month is not subject to income tax. (If your spouse does not work and you file a joint tax return as a household, his untaxable minimum can also be counted against your income.) What Miss Pentus proposes for social tax is the obverse: a deductible maximum. The employer would only pay social tax up to a maximum; let's say a contract number of 30,000 EEK. In that case the cost to the employer is 40,000 EEK, and the employee receives 23,000 EEK after all deductions. The employer pays 9900 EEK in social tax and 5600 EEK in income tax. (This is Estonia, you don't have to do your own taxes unless you're doing something uncommon.)

But if the employee then gets a raise to, say, 40,000 EEK a month, the employer keeps paying social tax up to the maximum. Only the 9900 EEK top band gets tacked onto the contract amount. The cost to the employer is 50,000 EEK. The employee gets 31,000 EEK after all deductions. The employer pays 9900 EEK in social tax and 7700 EEK in income tax. No matter how much the employee's salary is; the employer will never pay more than 33% of 30,000 EEK in social tax.

I'm not absolutely convinced that this scheme will work, but it sounds like it could. It limits the employer's costs in creating highly skilled, highly paid jobs in Estonia, which is what we want to do. It works on the same principle that has served Estonia extremely well in the past: limit the amount of money you're making from each source, and use that to get more sources. This is why McDonalds is worth more than De Beers.

Similar tax cap schemes exist in neighbouring countries. As much as it pains me to admit that the Latvians have done something right, maybe we should give this idea a try?

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Bonus story: Bank of Estonia says the worst is behind us, and we can now start our long slog up to prosperity.

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Friday, June 06, 2008

Shenanigans

Estonia's ruling coalition has been creaking along for a while now. Andrus Ansip has been PM for a very long time, but it is starting to look increasingly likely that he, like others, will fall victim to the tradition of Estonian governments never surviving from one election to the next.

Ansip's cult of personality has backfired: as the forceful, single-minded PM he now gets blamed for the country's problems, and both his coalition partners and the opposition are happy to let him burn. An economic crisis ought to be the time to shine for what is known as the party of bankers, but it seems the Reform camp is out of ideas - at least brilliant ones. Ansip's big hope was the new labour legislation, which would do away with many of the protections afforded to workers, and - by design - make Estonia more attractive for foreign investment. That bill went down in flames, because of public outrage, but I don't think it would have been much help anyway: highly skilled labour is in enough demand to largely ignore the legal provisions (I've never, in my life, drawn unemployment benefits, which were one of the main stumbling blocks in the bill), and blue-collar production would be prohibitively expensive in any case, as it would have to compete with Asia.

The opposition is even less helpful. When asked what he would do to relieve the economic crisis, the leader of the Centrist party said he would spend money - use the government's reserve, borrow cash, incur a budget deficit - but doesn't really say anything useful in terms of what he would spend the money on. Reform may not be doing as well as people expect it to, but at least they're scrambling to preserve the balanced budget.

Now the squabbling among the coalition parties is getting more intense. The coalition agreement involved a minor point about winding down the shale mining; it's a useful natural resource for Estonia, but massively bad for the environment. Instead, Reform went and pushed a bill through parliament that allowed one particular company extra mining rights.

The remarkable thing isn't that Reform went back on its campaign promises - because let's face it, politicians - but that it went against its coalition partners. Previously, any bill that the government sent off to the parliament had to be approved unanimously by the entire cabinet. Now Reform went it alone, and specifically against heavy criticism from IRL and the Social Democrats.

The latter did not waste time responding: their intention is to punish Reform by passing a bill that would outlaw sales of alcohol across Estonia from 10 pm to 10 am. This has long been an IRL project, opposed vigorously by the Reform ministers. Now IRL and SDE say they will enlist the help of the Centrists to get the votes they need.

A sign of a possible coalition breakdown and a new IRL-SDE-Centrist bloc? Maybe - except Reform doesn't have the majority in parliament. The mining bill was passed with 54 votes (out of a total of 101 MPs). And thanks to the wonders of E-stonia, we know who did. We have 5 non-voters (two Reform - front-benchers Igor Gräzin and Jürgen Ligi, one Centrist, one IRL and one independent) and one abstained (Centrist).

The breakdown of the yeas:
26 Reform
22 Centrist
6 People's Union (all of them)

And the neas:
15 IRL (all but four, three were not at the hearing, one was there but didn't vote)
8 SDE (all but two, who were not at the hearing)
5 Greens (all but one, who was not at the hearing)

So Reform's coalition mates were against the bill, joined by the unaffiliated Greens (who are not quite so incompetent as to support a mining bill). Reform's support in pushing the bill through? The same Centrists and their lapdog People's Union who are now giddily helping IRL get back at the PM with the alcohol bill.

I despair.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Finnish Muslims: the ultimate wigga?

There's an old joke, which may have originated in the Soviet Union but is applicable far more widely. A young black man is praying to God:

'Tell me, Lord, why was I born with this dark skin?'

And God answers:

'Because, child, the harsh sun of Africa would burn weak fair skin.'

The man asks again:

'Tell me, Lord, why was I born with this rough, wiry hair?'

'Because, child, the harsh sun of Africa would burn weak soft hair.'

And the man finally asks:

'Tell me, Lord, if that is the case, why was I born in Minnesota?'


The Finnish Muslim party (the what now?) has apparently posted an open letter on their website (designed circa 1998), addressed to the Estonian embassy. They are, apparently, quite angry about Estonia's presence in Iraq. (Nevermind that Estonia was not part of the conquering force, and only sent troops once the UN mandate came through, based on the invitation of the Iraqi government, to help out with peacekeeping.) They call it an affront to the Muslim world and, presumably, threaten vengeance. I don't know enough Finnish to read the website myself - anyone care to comment? Stockholm_slender?

Now, I've said it before and I will easily say it again: there is no great moral reason for Estonian troops to be in Iraq. War zone deployments cannot include conscripts, only volunteering contract soldiers; and at the end of the day we kept a platoon in Iraq for all these years in exchange for inclusion in the US visa waiver program - which the Bush administration has seemingly pulled off in its dying hours. (As much as I hate the Bush clique, they have managed to get one or two things done in foreign policy. I'm told Bush is genuinely, deservedly well-liked in Africa, for the massive amounts of aid the US has pumped into it. Well, maybe not Somalia.) We may as well pull out on November 8th.

However, the Finnish Muslim party can sit and spin. I realize full well that it's a terribly minor fringe group that does not deserve the publicity they're getting from getting their preposterous statements in the mainstream press, or whatever additional exposure they get from me talking about them; but I believe it is my duty, as a citizen and as a blogger, to take the piss out of these people. Finland has had its share of tragedy, but a militant Muslim cell in Espoo is a joke. We are a sovereign nation, we have repeatedly re-elected parties that have chosen to keep soldiers in Iraq, it has never been a serious issue (even for the bleeding-heart club of the Social Democrats and Strandberg), and we do not give a flying fuck about the opinion of a bunch of moose-herding geeks so bludgeoned by their nation's safety net that they have lost all capacity for independent thought or action. Sod off.

Bonus image: Mullah Tammi, the leader of the Finnish Muslim Party. With the best beard in the world, he'll still be a Jukka.

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Monday, March 31, 2008

Geniuses in aviation

People don't call customer support if they're happy with a service. Right? If everything is going as planned, they're getting what they need done, they're not gonna call someone up. Especially not in Estonia, a country infamous for its dearth of social interaction.



So it takes a very special person to put a recording at the start of every support call to Estonian Air, saying "We're having a Good Service month! Please call this number and tell them about the good service you've received from us!"

Now, when you're calling to find out if you're due any compensation for a flight delayed by FIVE FUCKING HOURS - a flight from Stockholm, which only takes about 50 minutes each way - it takes all your patience not to hurl the handset across the room.

I was at Stockholm Arlanda nice and early, too; I checked the flight status at the Arlanda Express office in the downtown train station (good tip if you're flying - it's convenient because it shows the terminal you need to go to), and I was at the ticket agent's as soon as they opened. The nice lady who worked for a company contracted to represent about a dozen minor airlines (as opposed to using the fucking SAS agent, who obviously have a massive base of operations in Stockholm - but since SAS only owns half of Estonian Air, that would have made too much sense) spent fifteen minutes on hold with EA's internal support, then about twenty seconds to receive a flat-out "no" to rerouting me through Helsinki, which would have cost me maybe half an hour from the original flight plan.

Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Am I happy with their service today? What do you think?

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Land Tax Considered Hilarious

Feel like Estonian politics has gotten boring again? That's about to change.

We're almost a year away from the Europarliament elections and a year and a half away from local ones, but it's starting up already.

I said last year that Savisaar was probably damaged beyond repair by his actions in the wake of the April riots; Reform and Isamaa would never let him live it down. It's a bit too early for them to drag out their biggest buckets of filth, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the government will do KERA no favours at all.

Alex has mentioned that property tax in Estonia is essentially zero. It's not really property tax; the property is taxed at the moment of purchase. This is land tax, something that is collected by the local council for administration purposes. (Most of the local council's budget comes from income tax, which is why the council is pretty much the only entity that gives two shits about the population register.) Alex pays 756 kroons a year on his farmland in Põltsamaa. I pay a proportional share of some tiny percentage of the assessed value of the land under my apartment building (the market value of the apartments is irrelevant), and it comes out to 22 kroons per year. Two dollars. I'm sure the postage, bank costs and administration overhead for the council are more than that sum.

There is a certain leeway in the land tax assessment for local councils. Each council can establish the size of the tax, between 0.1% and 2.5% of the assessed value. The rate in Tartu is 1%, and has been such since 2002; there is also compensation for pensioners who own plots up to 1000m2 (which is a decent chunk of land for a private residence).

The rate in Tallinn used to be 0.6%... but as of this year, it has grown to 1.5%. Retirees on a fixed income, who are now faced with a massive tax bill, are naturally livid, and the press is jumping on the story. This is where the Centrists' complete control of the Tallinn municipal government is coming to bite them in the ass, because there is no way for them to shift the blame. If Tartu (historically a Reform stronghold) and other towns can get by without raising land tax, it would be disingenuous for Savisaar to claim rising costs.

Predictably, the coalition parties are not rushing to the Centrists' aid. Harri Paabo, the chairman of the Tartu Homeowners Union, dismisses the issue as one irrelevant in the second largest city, and doesn't bother being too subtle about it: "The land tax is not a heavy burden on Tartu homeowners because we don't have Edgar Savisaar for a mayor."

The national homeowners union and its international counterpart have responded by suggesting a waiver on land tax for homeowners to begin with. The point of land tax is that land is a finite resource, and should not be hogged. If you buy land and don't do anything useful with it - such as farming, construction or other development - it becomes too expensive. Under this logic, there is certainly a valid point to be made that homeowners are not misusing land; they are doing the best thing they can with it, given local zoning regulations and the good of society in general.

A homeowners tax waiver would have to be passed as a national law. The Finance Ministry (controlled by the Social Democrats, who ought to be protecting the interests of the pensioners) is stalling, saying they haven't really considered it - this was never an issue until the 2008 tax notifications started arriving in the last few weeks. The press then turned to the Prime Minister.

Ansip, in his typical style when annoyed by what he feels is a stupid question, was unsubtle to the point of being politically incorrect: It's your own fault, dumbass. The population of Tallinn elected Edgar Savisaar's party to the municipal government, and now it is reaping the benefits. Sure, the government could interfere and block the massive tax hike, but this is going to reflect poorly on Savisaar alone, and there's no way in Hell that the Reform or IRL are going near this mess. Even the prospect of getting to say "we made sure the land tax wouldn't rise" come election time is not appealing enough. No, the coalition wants people to get hit where it hurts - in the wallet - and to hate Savisaar for it.

From the safety of Tartu, this is going to be entertaining.

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Bonus story: the domain names isamaaliit.com and isamaa.com have apparently been squatted by one Virgo Kruve, a Centrist party member who publishes the Pärnu municipal newsletter (Pärnu's mayor is KERA), the town's KERA propaganda sheet, and also owns the keskerakond.com, .net, .org and .info domains (all of those lead to the party's official website). The Isamaa domains however are more naughty: one was redirecting to an anal porn website (and not the relatively innocuous landing page either, but to a full compliment of genitalia) and the other was a mock advertisement for a Tallinn brothel that got shut down a couple of years ago - though not before Isamaa's Jüri Mõis got caught there and had to resign from the position of Tallinn mayor.

When quizzed by Eesti Ekspress, Virgo Kruve commented that the redirects were social commentary on the state of Estonia under Isamaa leadership.

Like I say, entertaining.

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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.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Belgrade

Obvious parallels...

Russian and Serbian are related, but all I can make out there is an ironic "Hero of the demonstrations".



Link via Estland.

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Foot, meet mouth.

EDIT: This now available at Baltlantis.

I have spoken before about the need to apply Occam's Razor to Russia - more specifically, the Heinlein conjecture, which states that one should never attribute anything to malice that can be adequately explained by stupidity. I never cease to be amazed by the ability of Russian institutions of greater or lesser officialdom to embarass themselves in spectacular ways. Really, it's a government full of Boris Johnsons.

I've stayed away from the whole Kosovo issue, because I don't have enough information to make a good judgement on it; I have the impression that the process happening now is more Kosovo's separation from Serbia rather than actual independence - since it'll be run by the EU (and even its flag is a version of the European one). But Serbia is pissed off.

Russia's reaction is mixed. On the one hand, it has been trying to use Serbia as a client state for ages - during the NATO bombings, I've heard rhetoric that Serbia is the only major nation in Europe that is both Slavic and Orthodox; Greece being the latter but not the former, and Poland the former but not the latter. So if Serbia is indignant, Russia is too. Especially since Kosovo is now the dominion of the West, so they get to trot out the old lines about imperialist pigs again.

On the other hand, they are gleefully pointing to Kosovo as a precedent, and demanding international recognition for Abkhasia, South Ossetia and Transdniestr. I've even heard a few local voices piping up again with the idea of an Independent Republic of Ida-Virumaa, which incidentally I would just love to see them try. So Russia finds itself in propaganda heaven, a win-win situation.

And then Russia's state-owned television channel puts out a news show where the anchor spews out the following:
Today the people of Belgrade surely remember other public gatherings. They remember the madness of the crowd that brought down old man Milosevic. The same football fans, by the way. How a country giddy with liberal promises cried at the funeral of the Western puppet Zoran Djindjic - the man who destroyed the legendary Serbian army and secret services, who sold the heroes of Serbian resistance out to The Hague for abstract economic assistance, and who got a well-deserved bullet for it.
Youtube link if you understand Russian. Zoran Djindjic was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Serbia after the end of Milosevic's regime, murdered in 2003.

Holy. Fucking. Shit. This is Russian state TV. Not just a media puppet - this is the official channel of the Kremlin.

The show in question went out at midnight Thursday/Friday. Naturally, the Serbian government is livid. The NewsRu article linked above has a quote from the former Balkan bureau chief of the Russian state newswire, Sergei Gryzunov, saying that this quote is a call for the murder the current Serbian president, Boris Tadic (who was a close supporter of Djindjic's).

So the main question now is, was this an authorized statement, or was the anchor overexcited and taking advantage of the poorly-censored midnight time slot? If it's the latter, we should see news of his dismissal shortly. I lean towards this explanation, because of the reason stated above, but then haven't we seen similar sort of preposterous spew out of the Russian state media directed towards Estonia or Georgia? The only difference now is that Serbia is, ostensibly, on Russia's side.

These people are hilarious, but occasionally their delusion can be scary.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

PR stands for Putin's Russia

An interesting point by Juri Maloverjan of BBC's Moscow bureau. He has been going around Russia (proper - not just Moscow and St. Petersburg) filing reports on preparations for the presidential elections, and has noticed a pattern.

Most of the people willing to go on record said largely the same thing: their lives personally are hard and unfair, but the situation in general has improved so much in Putin's time that they are definitely going to vote for Putin. Or, you know, Medvedev. Whatever.

The value of good PR?

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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.)

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The AnTyx Fix: Education

Wrote about education a few weeks ago, and of course somebody asked me what we're supposed to do about it. Which is a very good point; it's my job as a blogger to suggest the proper way to do things which I think are broken.

There was a news blurb in the papers yesterday: apparently there is something called an IT Council, and they recommended that the national school-graduation exams include mathematics as a mandatory test. This would produce a lot more youths with aptitude in mathematics, solve Estonia's labour shortage, and generally save the dolphins.

Well, that's a silly idea. It would be valid in India or China, but it's inappropriate for what we are trying to do here. Making maths mandatory is going to produce a large number of people with just enough math knowledge to pass the test, and they will be expected to go into IT, and we will have a workforce of semi-competent code monkeys that are far more expensive than semi-competent code monkeys in Bangalore, and nobody will have any use for them.

Estonia needs to be a knowledge economy. Our marketable skill is competence, and the ability to design and implement the optimal solutions to a problem. Solutions which are remarkably useful, and I mean remarkably - so good that you can't help but remark on it. To sustain this, we need to give our people the opportunity to become really good at what they do, and we can't do that by forcing all of them to learn Java.

Now, I've seen something recently which made me think about these things. It was a list of things you have to do when you're poor. It had really sad and hard-hitting lines like "Being poor is making lunch for your kid when a cockroach skitters over the bread, and you looking over to see if your kid saw". It made me think of my own family, back in the early 90s, when often enough my dad would simply not get his salary; he'd do the work, but there would be no money to give him. We were properly poor back then. But these days - I'm not rich, but I've fooled some people. I'm comfortably middle-class, with enough disposable income for a moderate selection of toys. So's the rest of my family. So are my friends, including the ones I grew up with.

And it occured to me that the biggest external contributing factor - other than the fact that I'm just naturally good at something that I've managed to earn money doing - was education. More importantly, the fact that I could go to the best university in the country and pay no tuition at all. I worked through most of my uni days, and my parents helped out, and I took out student loans some of the time (secured by the state - the interest is actually less than inflation now), but I couldn't have done it if I had to pay tuition as well. And yes, I have a BA in English, which is about the most practically useless degree one can have (second only to semiotics and philosophy), but it's still helped to find a good job. It has also given me an excuse to move away from my parents, and get the confidence of being able to take care of myself.

So how do we scale that experience? Keeping in mind that our ultimate goal is to create a steady stream of intelligent, well-trained and highly competent specialists? I don't have a guaranteed solution, but I have an idea on where to start.

1) Money. Estonia's free-market ideology means that the government does not own the companies that provide a government-regulated service. The national universities (like hospitals) are commercial enterprises; and every year, the government calculates how many specialists in a certain field it will be able to use 3 to 5 years down the line. Based on that, it signs a contract with a university, paying it to train the specialists. The university has a certain, significant but limited, number of tuition-free spots, which are assigned to applicants based on academic achievement. Usually, those who didn't make it will have a chance to get a paid spot - a thousand Euro per semester or so. Same curriculum.

Obviously we end up with more specialists than the state ordered. The state is limited by its budget, and relies on the commercial spots and all-private universities to make up the shortfall. The problem is that the all-private universities are generally crap (I think Tallinn's EBS business school might be the only exception). More money for more free spots would allow a concentration of students to the better institutions. We'd be fine with a University of Tartu and a University of Tallinn, and their colleges in Pärnu, Narva, Haapsalu... I have no faith in places like Mainor or Euroülikool.

More opportunities for free tuition will attract more students to the universities that can provide good education. Education from a good university is a useful thing even if the student ends up with a job that has nothing to do with his degree - as a lot of people do.

2) Exams. Currently, there is a single set of exams for high school graduation, and the results of these are used by the universities to generate an average passing grade. The results of all applicants are averaged out, and those who have a grade higher than the threshold, get the free spot.

The problem with this is that the exams cater to the lowest common denominator. Not all the kids who leave high school will go to university. Not all universities are the same in the level of education they offer, and thus the level of student knowledge they require.

The universities need to re-introduce their own entrance exams. This will allow the good colleges to accept good students; or rather, because they will be the ones with an abundance of free-tuition spots, it will motivate more students to study hard and bone up on the subject matter. It should also intrinsically limit the number of kids applying for a major with a low entrance barrier that they have no long-term interest in - just to get that student status.

3) Support. Estonia's tertiary education system has been criticized for mostly being inferior to universities abroad, but that is the wrong approach. Obviously it is not possible for a country of 1.3 million to build up a talent pool as comprehensive, diverse and advanced as a country with thirty or fourty times the population. Fortunately, we don't have to! The fact that it is so easy for our kids to go and study in Oxbridge or the Sorbonne is an advantage, a very significant resource bestowed on us by EU membership, and one that we would be fools to ignore. By the very nature of the Estonian people, they will not stay away forever; even those with an education and a career in the confederacy or further off will still return sooner or later, because of the fundamental Estonian sense of home. EU's best universities should be exploited by Estonia in the same way that EU funds are used to renovate our infrastructure.

Of course any application for EU funds is accompanied by a mandatory self-financing component. The same point applies. The Estonian government needs to dedicate resources - financial, administrative and political - to supporting those of its youths who choose to go abroad and study at the best colleges in Europe, or indeed the world. In the same way that the state secures student loans at a low interest rate, pays for tuition, and ensures discounts on vital goods and services (I'm still convinced that there is a state tender for the 1.90 EEK packets of ramen in the shops near Tartu's dorm cluster), there needs to be an extensive government program of supporting kids that study abroad. Something similar exists in a basic state - you can get your student loans written off if you work for a government agency after graduation - but it needs to be greatly expanded.

So, what do you think? Does any of this make sense?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Expect Trouble

Something big is going down in Narva.

For some time now, the city council has been fighting the Kreenholm factory over some disputed utility bills. The Kreenholm textile factory is one of Estonia's biggest manufacturing enterprises, contributing a serious chunk to the country's exports. It is also an extremely important employer in the troubled Ida-Virumaa region.

Tomorrow Kreenholm will lay off 900 employees.

From what I gather, Narva's municipal water company has raised prices sharply. According to Kreenholm management, the amount that the factory is being charged is 14 times above cost; as Narva Vesi is the monopoly, this does appear extremely fishy. Kreenholm, which consumes some two hundred million kroons' worth of power and water annually, challenged the price hike and took it all the way to the Law Chancellor (a high-ranking civil servant, used as a nonpartisan arbiter), who demanded an explanation from the city. The arbitration court has not yet ruled on the lawsuit of Narva Vesi against Kreenholm, claiming 20 million kroons in unpaid fees.

The Narva city council, which has been backing the water company aggressively, has arrested Kreenholm's bank accounts on December 4th. With no way to pay suppliers, or its employees, Kreenholm has cut its losses. The factory employs some 2400 people total, after an earlier layoff of 500. Another nine hundred jobs lost will in itself be devastating for Narva's economy; more could follow. The factory's Swedish owners say they will not close it down completely, but by next Christmas it will hardly employ more than a thousand people.

It's been a bad day for Estonian business. Skype, the darling of the Estonian IT sector, has been in trouble. Its owner, eBay, which paid $2.6 bln for the company and then announced it had overvalued the business massively, has not been able to develop the service in any significant way. The former owners, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, have quit to pursue other projects. And today, around 30 Skype employees suddenly found themselves out of a job.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Economy Redux

Oh all right then. I really didn't want to talk about the devaluation scare, because it's just too mind-bogglingly stupid, a cringe-inducing example of lemming behavioral patterns. But if you insist...

Here's what happened:

Back in early November, someone at an Estonian Russophone messageboard posted a game scenario where the Estonian government announced a snap devaluation of the kroon, and asked the regulars to suggest their actions.

Because the disclaimer was in fine print, some people didn't notice it, and thought it was an actual information leak. So they started converting their assets to Euro and calling all their friends to warn them. This apparently caused a wave of vague rumors: nobody knew where they were coming from, but everybody was talking about an imminent devaluation, and people were scared.

A few days ago, the original messageboard post got picked up by someone from the Night Watch, who posted it on their website. This sparked a mass panic among the Russian population: if Night Watch says it, it must be true. The information spread so pervasively that even those who didn't care about Night Watch were convinced by all their friends. Since the text said that the devaluation would happen on Monday morning, Sunday saw a run on currency exchange companies: people were buying up Euros, Swedish kronor, British pounds, even gold (but curiously, not dollars). Tallinn's big independent currency exchange company, Tavid, actually ran out of foreign cash.

This run was almost entirely confined to the Russophone population. The Estonians had gotten wind of the original rumors, but never panicked. They had good reason not to: devaluation of the Estonian kroon is extremely unlikely, for multiple very good reasons.

First of all, the law. The kroon is pegged to the Euro by legislation; removing the peg would require a new bill, and a bill can only be passed if it has gone through no less than two readings in parliament, with no less than two weeks between them. The Bank of Estonia can only vary the peg rate by 3% (0.47 EEK). In theory it is possible for the BoE board to hold a continuous series of sessions through the night, adjusting the rate by 3% every time, but I will dare you to find a politician who could pull that off and not get lynched by an angry mob the next morning. Otherwise, a devaluation with forewarning is entirely pointless. The idea of devaluation is to remove excess wealth from the economy, wealth which defeats motivation to try harder. If everyone just converts their savings to Euros and back again, you've lost a lot of voter confidence with no benefit at all. Say what you will about the Estonian government, but they know a bit about economy theory.

Second, the kroon is secure. Estonia operates on a currency board system, whereby the BoE only issues kroons in return for foreign currency. Every kroon in circulation is backed by a dollar, Euro, pound, yen or dinar sitting somewhere deep in the vaults under Estonia Puiestee. While the total worth of these reserves does naturally vary, overall the BoE is capable of redeeming all the money out there at the peg rate. The sort of concentrated market effort that would drive the value of the kroon down enough that the BoE reserves would be depleted is not possible due to the rules of international banking. So the kroon isn't going to crash on its own; it can only be devalued by the government.

Third, there is simply no reason to do it. The kroon has been in far worse trouble than today. It wasn't devalued then (when it was still pegged to the Deutschmark) and it won't be devalued now. There is simply nobody who would benefit from it. The banks need their Euro-denominated mortgages paid back, and don't want the general population to suddenly lose a big chunk of its purchasing power. The businesses don't want it, because the devaluation only benefits industrial exports, which are a minor factor in the Estonian economy. Estonia's main economic force is its skilled labour, and that has shown willingness to go abroad in search of higher pay. To retain their workforce, the employers would have to recalculate salaries in Euros, which they can do with relative ease because they sell their products for Euros anyway. So devaluation is pointless.

But why did the currency run happen, then? The scare is rooted in the general sense of pessimism that has arisen in the wake of the economic slowdown. We seem to be heading for the soft landing rather than the hard crash, but people have come to expect wild growth and are discouraged when they don't find it. Accession to the Eurozone was our next grand project, after EU and NATO membership, and now that looks unlikely for at least a decade. Consciously or subconsciously, people want their government to jumpstart the economy, initiate another period of massive growth. Without a deep understanding of economic processes, based simply on hearsay and Delfi editorials, they expect that the government would do something like this - trade off a momentary lapse against future growth. And besides, who in Estonia has savings anyway?

The reason that the scare was prevalent among the Russophones is that - and I know I'll be called all sorts of bad things again for this - the majority of them are working-class immigrants without the education or the curiosity to try and figure out what is happening, exactly. Their pervasive distrust of the government, a reflex applied through surviving the Perestroika, coupled with a nagging suspicion that Andrus Ansip personally hates each and every one of them, makes them susceptible to such rumours.

People are mostly lemmings. There isn't much we can do about that. In this case nobody got hurt very much, although people will indeed lose money on the exchange rate. Far from being critical, the situation is simply embarassing.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

It's the Economy, St00pid

Our neighbours aside, the thing that is supposed to kill Estonia is an economic implosion. Ostensibly fueled by cheap lending from the Scandinavian-owned banks, it has resulted in very high inflation and a very high current-account deficit. The harbinger of doom, they say, is the crash of the real estate market.

Now, certainly things are not as rosy as they've been in the past. But is the sky really falling?

Inflation is the first boogeyman. A year ago we were desperately trying to stuff it that last bit under 3%, so we could join the Euro. Now it's around 8%, year-on-year. Horrible, isn't it? The EEK is losing value fast!

Except it's not, because it's pegged to the Euro. All sorts of analysts have been calling on the Bank of Estonia to float the currency, but they don't seem about to do it. Pegging to the Euro makes sense because most of the Estonian economy is tied into the Eurozone. People pay their mortgages in Euros, and they get paid by companies that sell their wares for Euros. So as long as the kroon stays pegged, and stays freely exchangeable, it's losing value at the same rate as the Euro - which isn't much at all. You can go to Paris today and buy as much stuff with the same amount of kroons as you could a year ago.

What's happening isn't that the currency is losing value, but that the cost of living is going up. Prices in Estonia are going up; in fact they're inching ever closer to the Central European ones. But the economy is growing much faster than the Eurozone's - and despite a noticeable slowdown, it's still growing faster than inflation! So we are still getting more wealthy, just at a slower rate than before. As long as this keeps up, it's not an economic crisis - it's just part of the process of catching up to the European living standard. Oh, did you think you'd end up getting European salaries without European prices? Silly rabbit.

The current account deficit is a nebulous economic term: to put it very simply, it's the difference between the worth of stuff that Estonians own abroad, and the worth of stuff that foreigners own in Estonia. So we owe them more than they owe us, which is why we have the deficit.

The problem with this number is that people tend to assume it means something different; they think it's the amount of money we owe to somebody. Which is not the case. The current account deficit is the result of the specifics of the Estonian economy, which has been successful by attracting lots of foreign investment. Our favourable tax code has resulted in lots of companies using local labour to produce goods or services, but not actually selling anything here. So the Estonian subsidiary, a locally registered company, sells its product to the mother company for exactly enough to cover costs - wages of the employees, office rent, equipment purchase, etc. This makes sense because the company has no profit left over at the end of the year - everything is being reinvested. So the company doesn't pay any tax on that profit. (The government gets income tax from the individual employees' salaries.)

But the subsidiary still has revenue, and capital assets, and those do keep growing. So the foreign company's worth of stuff they own in Estonia goes up. And the current account deficit increases. Mind you, there's still money coming into the pockets of both Estonian employees and the Estonian government. But because this money is on the books as cost, it doesn't get included in the current account calculations.

Now, the current account deficit is still a bad thing for the economy, because we'd rather own stuff than be salaried employees. There are a few big movers in the right direction, like Tallink, an Estonian company which is now the biggest ferry operator on the Baltic. But a current account deficit is by no means a sign of imminent economic crash. In fact, it means that our economy is secured by the stability of established European markets. Which is nice.

The third, final and most overhyped issue is the real estate crash. The banks have been giving out lots of loans in Euros, with low interest. People have been taking advantage of that to buy lots of apartments. Because the number of people with the money to buy a home is growing, and the supply of apartments is limited, their prices skyrocketed. Because old Soviet apartment blocks are rather unpleasant, people were willing to pay more for new apartments. Because the market prices for apartments were insanely above the costs, lots of companies scampered to start developing residential properties.

This cycle continued for a while, until the end of 2006 or so, and then it hit a wall. Prices got too high, the inflation rose, the economy started to slow down, people started losing faith. The first victims were the speculators, who were trying to buy up properties still in development and sell them for a profit when they were completed. Because the bank loan rules are fairly strict, they had to turn their money around quickly. When the demand dried up, they had to get out of their investments quick. But this had a relatively minor effect on the market. There weren't very many of these guys, and what they were doing was kind of assholey, so fuck 'em.

The market ground to a halt. The number of sales fell dramatically. Prices also fell, but curiously, not all that much. There are people like this guy, and Postimees staff writers, who keep bringing up massive discounts in apartment prices as proof of a meltdown in progress. But the important thing that a lot of folks don't notice is that all these grand discounts come not from owners - but from developers.

There's an important difference. An owner of an apartment is getting back the money he paid for the apartment when he got it. With any new building, the sell price is going to be only slightly higher than the price the owner paid for it. A wave of massive discounts on the secondary real estate market would mean that people are actually losing money. But interestingly enough, this is not happening.

The 200 million kroons of total discount on apartments that this dude talks about is money that never existed. Nobody ever paid those 200 million kroons and then couldn't get them back. All of that money is developers' discounts; profits that they hoped to get by putting new properties on the market for improbably high prices at the peak of the boom, when they actually had some chance in hell of getting that sort of money. Now the peak has passed, the market is not willing to pay improbably high prices, and they're having to lower them. But - they're not lowering them past the level of cost. With the exception of tiny, one-shot development ventures that ran out of cheap loans before they could finish their properties (probably due to the lack of construction labour - all the workers went abroad for better pay), everyone is still getting a profit. Just not as much of one as they'd hoped.

One point that has been brought up is the number of evictions. Year-on-year, it has increased tenfold. What the sensationalist articles are slow to point out is that the absolute numbers are still very low. And we don't know how many of those evictions were speculators, who only lost tiny down payments. There were some very dodgy deals available at the height of the lending spree, but most people who buy apartments to keep, have to adhere to the mortgage rules: down payments of 10-15% or more, and the monthly payment cannot exceed 30-40% of the household net income (and that percentage includes all repayments, including car loans and credit card debt). And you have to be able to afford the mortgage when you buy the apartment; any raise or additional income you get afterwards eases the pressure.

Even for the poor buggers who bought at the peak of the price rally, there are some good news. Most mortgages in Estonia are issued in Euros at EURIBOR + the bank's margin, and the margin is usually pretty low (less than 1%). EURIBOR has now stopped growing, and might even fall - the European Central Bank has to do this to keep the world financial markets running. And as long as the economy growth stays even a little ahead of inflation, salaries in absolute EEK numbers continue to grow, and the EEK stays pegged to the Euro, the effective repayment level will only shrink. Because everyone here will be getting more kroons, but while they won't be able to buy that much more milk with them, they will be able to buy more Euros.

To conclude: yes, the Estonian economy has problems. But they're not unsolvable, and they're not grave. So could the journalists and the lemmings please stop being apocalyptic about it?

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

So Much For Appeasement

It's November 7th, 2007, the 90th anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia.

News of the day:

1) Russia is demanding that Latvia make Russian a state language. Anyone still admiring the Latvians' ratification of the border treaty and generally playing nice with Moscow recently? This is a particularly excellent statement to make right now, when the country's economy is suspect and the government is on unsure footing. There's definitely someone in the Kremlin looking to repeat history and arrange for Russian military assistance to help maintain the peace in an embattled Latvia (for the next however many decades).

2) Russia is unilaterally pulling out of the European common arms limitation treaty. Now, one cool trick my high school history teacher showed us was to take a look at the orders of battle before the start of WWII, and then use that data to deduce which countries were actually intending to go to war. (Hint: it wasn't France.) A particularly cute statement is the head of the Army general staff going on record saying that Moscow is worried about a build-up of arms in the Baltic states.

Given that the chance of the Baltic Batallion invading Russia is fairly negligible, I come back to my theory that the Russian authorities aren't even bothering to lie any more - you just have to listen to what they're actually saying. They're not worried that the Baltics are a threat to Russia's security, they're worried that the Baltics might have a more formidable defense than they would like.

Scared yet?

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

This place needs a chill pill.

The reason the blog has been silent recently was because I've been in a bad mood. I'm just too annoyed by human stupidity. I guess at least partially it's a result of autumn in Estonia - predictably drizzly and depressing. But beyond that, it's been a silly time.

The big story in Estonian ethnic relations is a 7th grade textbook, which references a collection of kids' folklore published back in 1992. It references three books in fact, one of which is listed as homework, and the other two are at the teacher's discretion. And one of those, the one that contains jokes that kids sent in some 15 years ago, includes a bunch of properly irreverent and politically incorrect ones. About a lot of population groups, not just ethnic. But of course, it's the Russians who had to make a grand fuss.

The newspapers are playing to their audience by coming out with headlines like "7th Grade Textbook Promotes Racism against Russians", which is factually untrue (there's nothing objectionable in the actual textbook). The LiveJournal bloggers have taken up the cause, naturally.

Now, yes, the jokes may very well be insulting, and it was a goof on the part of the textbook's author to not check her sources. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that before the April riots, this wouldn't have been nearly as big a deal, and the textbook isn't all that recent. And whether any of us want it or not, little kids will continue to make jokes like "What animals are most common in Estonia? - Russians". So yes, it was a bad move. But for the love of God, can these people please stop trying to start another round of pin-the-tail-on-the-Ansip every time they stumble upon a perceived insult? Please?

On the other side, the newspapers are still publishing editorials on integration, why (and whether) it failed, what should be done about it, etc. This is getting quite old now as well, mainly because nobody's making particularly interesting points. Much like my manifesto* was an attempt to publicly state the truth that nobody wants to admit, none of the current commentators dare say what they all know: integration is a pretty, but meaningless word. The program has always been a mix of assimilation for the willing, and giving the unwilling ID cards so they can move to Barking and become Gordon Brown's headache instead of hours. There will never be a Russian cultural autonomy in Estonia, and there will never be a Russian PM. But this is far too drastic for most commentators - I've seen a few approach the point, though. Still, the riots and Russia's continuous assholeyness is a good topic to talk about.

To paraphrase Holden McNeil: Delfi has given everyone in Estonia a voice, and everyone in Estonia has chosen to use that voice to bitch about integration.

And it's getting really annoying. In the immortal words of Will Smith: Why don't you exercise your right to shut the fuck up?

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* What? I couldn't let Giustino get away with stealing my Estlander schtick. ;)

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fiction is taking a walk

Um, OK. This was beyond even my powers of prediction, mostly because it's so brazen as to be inconceivable.

President Putin is running for parliament.

He's Number One in the incumbent party's election list, with the intention of taking the prime minister's spot once his second presidential term runs out next spring.

I honestly don't know how to comment this. It's a move that I'd expect to see in Central America, or maybe a small Asian country like Nepal or Bangladesh (turns out Bangladesh is a republic, with 150 million people; holy shit). I'd said that they don't even seem to be bothering to lie any more, not even to keep up appearances. I didn't expect this, though.

Inconceivable!

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Back To School

Russia Today is a 24-hour news channel, the English-language arm of Kremlin wire service RIA Novosti. The channel's website boasts:
"Millions of viewers switch on to Russia Today to learn what other media are not likely to have".
Feel free to giggle.

The reason I'm mentioning it is this video, a segment about Estonia's school reform. According to the anchor, "Russian-speaking children in Estonia are in for big changes when the new school year starts next month. Fresh laws mean all lessons have to be taught in Estonian, the country's only official language."

This is, quite simply, not true. I've talked about this before: the current plan is to gradually introduce more and more classes taught in Estonian, up to 60% of the entire curriculum over the next few years. I've also talked about why it's a stupid idea and what would be the right way of doing it. But that's not the point today.

The point today is yet another tired effort at pointing out the Russian media's blatant lies about Estonia, and specifically about the "abuse" of Russian-speakers here. The partial transcript conveniently omits the part of the segment that talks about a gradual fade-out of Russian in schools, and the local citizen and mother of a small girl* saying she sent her daughter to an all-Estonian school because she, herself, was not confident in the quality of education that would be available in Russian schools in the future. Despite being a school history teacher herself. (Saw a statistic the other day, apparently some 17% of Russian-speaking kids are going to Estonian-speaking schools this year.)

Really, I'm only posting this because it was mentioned in my LiveJournal feed. Official Russian media lying through the teeth is not news. Nor is it surprising to see them make such an obvious blunder.

But it does still raise a chuckle.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

How It's Our Fault

Fancy a bit of spin fun?

Lost among the crap in Russia the last week or so was the Litvinenko spinoff story involving Pablo Miller, an MI-6 agent and apparently a bit of an expert on Russia. The man had been implicated in a couple of arrests in the Russian cloak & dagger circles, including a certain Valeri Ojamäe, a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the FSB, who was later sentenced to seven years for treason. This particular recruitment took place in the late 90s in Tallinn, where Miller was working under diplomatic cover at the British embassy. According to FSB's statement, Miller was aided in his endavours by Kapo.

Now, what you have to understand is that Kaitsepolitsei is strictly an interior agency. Foreign intelligence is handled by the very quaintly named Teabetalitus, while Kapo is indeed responsible for keeping other countries' spies in Estonia in check.

Personally, I find the fact that the MI-6 station chief would enlist the help of the local counterintelligence for a job, actually quite flattering. Do you?

Meanwhile, the Russian government's newspaper of record - the one that publishes all new laws when they come into force - had an op-ed on the likely leads in the train bomb event. At the end of the article they mentioned that nearby Estonia was at the same time playing host to the Erna Raid, a war game recreating a WWII-time marine landing by assorted German forces. The Russian newspaper suggested that perhaps one of the international teams taking part in the raid got a bit carried away, crossed the border, and engaged in a bit of light sabotage to pass the time.

Cute.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Eurotrip: Extratemporal

Eurotrip diary will continue with impressions from rural Netherlands, but I'm writing this in Schoenefeld airport, on my way home, and I am astounded by the level of customer service in Germany.

In two words, it Sucks Ass.

Over three days in Cologne and Berlin, I have encountered more assholes per square kilometer than anywhere else I've ever been - and I've been to Paris, South California, and Russia. Maybe I need to go to Bavaria for the stereotypical experience, but up to now I've seen all the twisted, illogical downsides of Ordnung without any of the benefits.

I can comprehend, logically, that there is a reason why shops would prefer one type of card over another, and not take credit cards. I think it's stupid, because I live in a country where anything carrying a Visa logo or the Mastercard double globes is accepted everywhere except the cinema. I've had it explained, by a specialist in the field, why everyone in Germany uses Maestro.

What I don't understand is why, when I find out from a shop floor girl at a gadget supermarket who was standing around chatting to the other assistants that I cannot buy the item with my embossed Visa, and put down the box at the nearest shelf, she demands in an insulted voice that I put it back in the proper location. You get paid to put the box back, you stupid cow.

I don't understand why I can't buy a bottle of mineral water with a bank card at Frankfurt Airport, a major international hub with massive numbers of passengers travelling from one country that doesn't use the Euro to another one. There is no reason to expect me to have cash. Seriously.

I don't understand why the girl at the Deutsche Bahn information desk at Berlin Hauptbahnhof cannot explain to me how to force the ticket machine to actually issue a ticket to Schoenefeld, and not just an itinerary. I'm fairly fucking sure that I'm not the first person to be asking the question.

I don't understand why I have to pay three Euro to leave my bag at the left luggage at ten minutes before midnight, then have to pay another three Euro to retrieve it at 5am because it's two separate days. Even though Every Single Fucking train station in the civilized world charges per 24 hours, including the rather cool auto-stackers in Cologne.

I don't understand why I can't check in to an easyJet flight at the Berlin hub earlier than two hours before the flight, whereas I can do the same thing online 24 hours prior, and can check in way earlier at tiny little Tallinn airport, where airside is quite a cramped affair.

But I swear, if one more German fucks with me today using a completely arbitrary and moronic rule designed to make my life more difficult, I am going to respond by doing the Sieg Heil salute and shouting 'Muskatnuss!!!'.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Edgar just can't get a break.

The mayor's downward spiral continues. Today, July 12th, started out with news that one Rene Reinmann, a Tallinn assembly member for the Centrist party, a sitting member of the council's law enforcement committee (among other things), is a criminal. The man's been convicted for multiple felonies, including violent assault.

This is Tallinn, and the Centrists have an absolute majority in the municipal assembly. Nobody to blame but themselves.

Then, just as the online news sources were chewing on Andrus Ansip's response to Savisaar's critical article in yesterday's daily (the PM essentially told Edgar to sit down and shut the fuck up), the wires come alive with news that the police caught Savisaar speeding.

You know how I said people are really angry at speeders right now?

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Savisaar Declares Blue Law, Loses Voters, Mind

In a bid to distract people from his reaction to the April riots and his Putin Party connections, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar has declared a permanent ban on off-license alcohol sales after 8 pm.

Yeah, THAT's gonna make him really popular.

(His nemesis, the PM Andrus Ansip is on the other hand famous in some circles for issuing an executive exception for a little park ground in downtown Tartu. There's a general law against public alcohol consumption in Estonia, but back when Ansip was the mayor of Tartu, he made sure the law didn't apply to Pirogov Hill.)

Meanwhile, on the local Russian side Savisaar's been catching flak for advertising his autobiography via MSN Messenger banners, with taglines like "How do we fight Russia?". It really appears as though Edgar is off his rollers.

Bonus: photo op of Edgar Savisaar with newborn triplets.

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Estonica: Riot

Scratch that. The shit has hit the fan in such a spectacular fashion that I'm waking up with brown specks on my windows - and I'm over a hundred miles away from it all.

By end of business yesterday, a crowd of Russian youths began to assemble at the Bronze Soldier site. By nightfall the police had had enough of the crowd throwing stones at them, and a wall of riot cops, armed with tear gas and flashbangs, drove the protesters back.

What followed was a night of carnage in downtown Tallinn, with the youth mob breaking windows and looting shoops. The police did not confine the crowd, allowing them to disperse into main streets, where cars were overturned and at least one kiosk was set on fire. The TV news crew that was in the thick of it showed drunk, excited faces tearing open stolen cartons of cigarettes and chanting "Rossiya! Rossiya!". One kid was explaining to the reporter in accented Estonian what the mob was after - that history should be reevaluated with their opinion taken into consideration. When asked about the looting, he responded that this was just a few Russians feeling thirsty.

By 2 am the riot was mostly over. Main thoroughfares were blocked by lines of police officers, violent and drunk Russian youths were handcuffed to lamp posts, yelling death threats at TV cameras. Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, leader of the opposition and the main political force in Estonia ostensibly protecting the interests of the Russian voters, said that as of 2 o'clock the next day, sales of alcohol in the city would be suspended - at least until May 2nd, but the ban may be extended. This period includes Valpurgis Night, the eve of May 1st, traditionally a grassroots carnival night in Estonia.

An emergency session of the government's crisis committee, made up of the Prime Minister Andrus Ansip, Interior Minister Jüri Pihl and Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo, recommended that the Bronze Soldier statue be relocated immediately, in order to prevent further rioting. As of this morning the statue has been moved to the military cemetary, and is being guarded by the police.

Late-night reports tell of the North Prefecture (the authority responsible for all the police in Tallinn and around) have called up every person on the roster, even those whose shifts have ended. The armed police forces have been deployed on Tallinn streets.

The mob's Estonian counterparts are rumored to be gathering later today in Hirve Park; the nationalists are fewer in number, but gearing up for a fight.

Qui bono? Qui culpa? Certainly Ansip is to blame for the timing. Had the excavation been scheduled after May 9th (Victory Day for the Great Patriotic War in Russia), and that day been kept peaceful, the critical mass would probably never have been reached. And while the hatred in local Russians was obviously nurtured by the Russian media (inevitably Kremlin-controlled), what is known publically at this point does not suggest that the riot was planned and executed by the Nochnoy Dozor or any other local pro-Russian groups.

The actions of the police, while perhaps operationally questionable - in that they did not manage to prevent the looting - were strategically sound and politically firmly in Ansip's favor. By allowing the crowd to disperse, they prevented civilian injuries and perhaps deaths on a larger scale; and at the same time the mob exceeded expectations by reducing itself to looting and violence.

With protectors of the Bronze Soldier, and by association local Russians in general, obviously shown to be violent, uncivilized, unreasonable and uncontrollable, Ansip now has a carte blanche. Even Savisaar appears to be stunned by the extent of the riot, and his "I told you so" is rather muted. Ansip's personal success at the elections has given him a carte blanche, and obviously his coalition partners aren't likely to protest any measures aimed against the Russians.

There is no benefit to the Kremlin that I can see right now, for much the same reasons - it is now painfully obvious that Estonia, as a country and as a nation, is facing the sort of sentiment and activity that nobody in Europe or the First World in general appreciates. By consistently and publically protesting the relocation of the memorial, the Russian authorities have now become inextricably linked to the riot, and everybody's going to be convinced, at least subconsciously, that they had something to do with it. I don't think Russia planned the riot, but Russia certainly caused it, and in terms of international politics, Russia is going to take the blame. And for most of Estonians, this is going to be a fight against an external enemy, an infiltrator, rather than a civil war.

The old curse appears to have come true - we are living in interesting times.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Estonica: Dead Men Travelling

In a feat of truly staggering timing, just as the newly formed Estonian government* was tooling up for the removal of the Bronze Soldier memorial ahead of the demonstrations planned for May 9th (the anniversary of Germany's capitulation in WWII), a grave of WWII soldiers was dug up in a Moscow satellite town. The area in question is apparently home to a cluster of megamalls, thanks to easy access via the metropolitan circle road. Most of the unoccupied real estate was apparently the property of a factory making space rocket components, so when the time came for a new shopping center, it was the memorial and six adjacent graves that had to go.

The gloating of the Estonian authorities has been relatively restrained, though there has been some talk of suspicions of foul play - that the whole Khimki debacle was orchestrated by agents in Estonian pay. (Does anyone recall what Estonia's foreign intelligence service is called? It was something ironically innocuous.) Of course, in this case we are obligated to invoke Occam's razor, more specifically the Heinlein corollary whereby one should never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity; making something like this happen with such impeccable synchronicity would be a victory for the Estonian intelligence community to make Mossad weep with envy.

Of course, anyone watching Russian events even moderately closely will have long gained the habit of presuming stupidity.

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*I haven't been covering the government formation business, mostly because I didn't particularly care; but by far the funniest outcome is that our new Defense Minister, the person directly responsible for war memorials and military graves, is Jaak Aaviksoo - until recently the head of Tartu University (and a man with a gift of putting an audience to sleep that is outstanding even by the measure of Estonian politicians). This is specifically entertaining in light of the fact that the post - DM, not rector - has previously been held by Sven Mikser, a guy that was less than 30 years old at the time, and had been excused from Estonia's compulsory army service. He used to be a lecturer at Tartu University's English department, where I got my BA; I've heard stories of him doing improper things with a jack-o-lantern on Halloween, in the dark halls of the former departmental offices.

Still, we're a right military superpower compared to Iceland's 30-strong civil defense team...

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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.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Estonica: Sour Cream

Earlier today, Russia's deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov (scandalous former defense minister and apparently not related to Sergei Ivanov of the Estonian Reform Party) called for a boycott of Estonian goods. He remarked that a lot of Estonian processed dairy products are consumed in northwestern Russia, and suggested that the common folk stop buying the fascist yoghurt as a personal political statement.

This is not a new tactic in any way. Russia is currently blessed with a character by the name of Onischenko, who heads the agency responsible for quality control of food - the rough equivalent of what would be the FDA in America. The character has previously banned Georgian mineral water and wine; Kremlin's intention was supposedly to cripple the Western-minded Caucasus republic's export-oriented economy. That plan failed miserably - the supply was easily taken up by other markets, Estonia among them. This latest statement, from the man that was widely speculated to be Putin's successor until he grossly mishandled a scandal concerning the terrible treatment of Russian army conscripts by denying anything untoward was taking place, has no degree of plausibility as far as damaging the Estonian economy is concerned: thanks to double tariffs, Russia has not been a significant trade partner for Estonia for years. And the popularity of the deputy PM is such that Russian blogs are suggesting that people buy up every Estonian-made item they can find and send it to Ivanov. To quote one blog comment: "Estonian sour cream is awesome. And Ivanov is a fucktard."

The most ridiculous thing about this public statement is that by far the most widespread Estonian item, an item that millions of Russians have the opportunity to use on a daily basis, is a safety belt. The restraint systems in Ladas are manufactured at Estonia's Norma factory.

Of course, these things are being boycotted anyway.

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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).

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

World's Most Preposterous Holiday

It's March 8th, and all over the postsoviet land mass it is celebrated as Women's Day.

If you thought Valentine's Day was a useless piece of garbage promoted by florists and makers of little red stuffed hearts, March 8th is even more so. It is a day on which we are meant to celebrate and appreciate women. All of them. For no other reason than the fact that they have a different chromosome from us men.

The gender opposite of this day was February 23rd, Homeland Protector Day - applicable because of universal conscription in the Soviet Union. That one's been forgotten now, as things to do with the Soviet Army are not hugely popular in Estonia, but it's still a public holiday in Russia. Women's Day around here warrants a tall red rose for every woman at the company, at the corporate expense.

Now, I can understand Mother's Day and Father's Day. I can even sort of get the point of Valentine's Day, though as long as I'm single I retain the right to be misanthropic about it. But Women's Day, March 8th, is a completely moronic piece of Soviet legacy still practiced out of sheer habit - because not enough people have said, "no, this is stupid".

So here we go: This is stupid, and I will not wish a happy holiday to any woman today.

Roll on Steak & Blowjob Day.

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