Monday, November 30, 2009

БЛОГЪР

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

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Estonian Girl

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

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Tim Minchin - Storm

Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shenandoah Mõmmi


Shenandoah Mõmmi
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Taken on the Skyline Drive, in north Virginia. Didn't dare get out of the car.

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lazy Person's Vote

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

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

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

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

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Th!nk Again


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

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



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

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Russian soldier deserts to Georgia

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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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.



----
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, July 31, 2008

Gremlins from the Kremlin



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

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Also,


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

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Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saulkrasti Sunset


Saulkrasti Sunset
Originally uploaded by Flasher T

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Friday, June 20, 2008

In Defense of the Snail Tower

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

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

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

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


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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Dissecting the Crisis

Everyone knows Estonia is in the middle of an economic crisis. Prices are really high, labour efficiency is really low, the government isn't getting enough taxes, the economy isn't growing, there's inflation, and generally everything is really, really bad.

But what does it actually mean?

I'm not an economist, so you'll have to bear with me; I am simply going on the premise that if there is an answer to give, it must be an answer that can be reached through common sense. I am also trying to use hard numbers from the hypnotic stat.ee database. Lies, damn lies, and search engines. Correct me if I'm wrong, and read the comments to see if someone already has.

First, the inflation. As we know already, the Estonian kroon is pegged to the Euro, and that rate is holding - so the actual value of the kroon in worldwide terms is not changing significantly. The Euro's inflation is at an all-time high as well, pushing 4%. The kroon's is at 10% or more, year-on-year. The latest figures available are for April 2008, and put the overall price index at 168.36. The same index for April 2007 was 151.12, showing an increase of 11.35%. This is supposedly the average increase in an average Estonian household's spending, I guess.

At the same time, the average salary before taxes has grown year-on-year; a rise of 19.5% when the first quarter of 2008 is compared to the first quarter of 2007. Now look: the salaries and benefits of parliament members are outrageous, but there's only 101 of them, and this county isn't that small.

(All comparative salary numbers are not taking into account the changes in income tax. Brute salary numbers are before income tax, which has been falling steadily from 26%; it's 21% in 2008 and will drop to 18% eventually. At the same time, the untaxable minimum - the basic income amount that is free of tax - is growing. So, everyone in Estonia gets slightly more cash in January than they did in December.)

If I'm looking at the numbers right, then despite the crisis and stalling economy (which had been stalling for most of last year, especially in the wake of Russian transit being pulled after April), the people of Estonia can now buy, on average, 8.15% more stuff.

The big numbers are percentages against a baseline of 1997. So 168.36 means that we're now spending 68% more real kroons on the same amount of stuff as we would have 11 years ago. I was curious, so I went and looked up the average brute salary for 1997, and guess what: it was 3 573 EEK. Honestly, I don't remember salaries being that small in '97, but I was thirteen years old, so you're welcome to go to the Statistics Department's website and check that I got the right table. But if so, then for an increase of 68% in spending, we got a 345% increase in earnings!

So, despite the rising prices, Estonians are actually still doing progressively better all the time. But this is where the labour efficiency argument comes in. Bolstered by years of massive economic growth, Estonians are asking for ever-higher salaries. They're getting them, but now the employers are complaining: people want more cash just because the economy in general is growing, not because they're working harder and doing more. So the employer's labour costs are rising faster than the revenues. For whatever reasons, the employer isn't moving the company to China. To be entirely honest, I don't feel too badly for the employers: every worker is worth as much as they manage to get someone to pay them. By definition, a worker's value to a company far outweighs the costs. Rising salaries are a problem, but there is no way Estonia could compete on labour costs alone. We're not a country of cheap labour; we're a country of relatively cheap and very good labour. If employers want low salaries, they can go to China or India; if you got a 19.5% raise during an economic crisis, you obviously deserve it. On a more general level, we should be proud that Estonia's workforce is good enough to pull this off.

So if people are earning more, and spending not quite as much more, then what's the problem? Look at Iceland - it's had massive inflation for ages. OK, so we won't be joining the Eurozone any time soon, but that's a matter of pride rather than any actual difference to anyone's lives.

The most noise being made about it right now is the budget shortfall. Estonia's budget must be balanced, by law; the government cannot spend less money than it has. So when the government sees that the taxes are not coming in at the rate it's expecting, it has to cut spending. All the big news with the coalition parties barking at each other and the opposition sniggering are around cutting spending, and which programs will be left out. Again, let's be clear about what's happening: the budget, and government spending, are still bigger than last year - and will remain bigger than last year - but not as big as they thought last year. The rate at which the amount of government money is growing is falling rapidly.

Excuse me if I don't cower in fear.

Still, it is a problem, and one that nobody seems to know how to fix. If people's incomes are increasing, it must be corporate revenues that are falling. Remember, Estonia doesn't have corporate income tax: if the budget shortfall is due to the economic slowdown, it must be because the government isn't getting as much revenue tax and excise. (It could be that it's getting income tax from less people, but unemployment is down year-on-year, from 4.7% to 4.2%.)

So where is the shortfall, exactly? Conventional wisdom suggests that when prices are rising rapidly and people are scared for the economy, they buy less stuff. Stat.ee conveniently provides very fresh data on retail:



OK, I think that might contribute. The government gets 18% of every sale in VAT; with a fall like that, it's gonna miss a few kroons here and there.

The other industry in trouble is real estate, obviously. People have no confidence for long-term commitments, interest rates on mortgages have risen along with the EURIBOR, and property is still fairly expensive (as I explained before, if you've actually paid a high price for an apartment once, you're going to want to recoup it when you sell it on; foreclosures are still exceedingly rare in Estonia). Stat.ee conveniently provides a table of property sales numbers:



Of course the problem here is that construction is a major industry in Estonia. It's always been a great source of high income for industrious youth without a higher education; the great hope of the working class, if you will. (Just because no AnTyx blog post would be complete without a reference to nationality - a disproportionate number of young Russian men work in construction.) So if real estate transactions are in freefall, the construction industry must be dead in the water as well. Right?

Wrong.



This table doesn't show a total number of constructed floor space, remember - it shows the number of new floor space per quarter. Construction has naturally trailed off, but it's not fallen, in fact it's still growing - just not as quickly. And builders' salaries are still growing year-on-year, slightly exceeding the national average.

Stat.ee doesn't have data for 2008 for all sectors of the economy, unfortunately, but let's just look at another one: industrial production (which includes energy production). Estonia's industrial sector is often thought of as frail and unimpressive, but it's still very important. That's why we have some nice, fresh stats to look at:



Again: not growing as quickly as it used to, but it seems that the dearth of qualified hands and the increase in labour costs has not had a massively troubling effect on industrial production. (Click on the picture for a page with more details, including a breakdown by type of industry. Energy and building materials are down; metalwork, machinery and electronic equipment are up.)

The relative health of industrial production, and the massive issues of retail, have had an interesting effect: import is down, export is up. (Remember: Estonia's IT sector largely doesn't figure in export calculations, because the local wholly-owned subsidiaries don't actually sell anything to anyone.) We're still importing more stuff than exporting, but it's a step in the right direction as far as the balance of trade is concerned.

CONCLUSION


The crisis could get far worse, and I'm not going to claim that we're at the lowest point right now; but if it continues to develop in the same way, then I believe this is what they meant when they talked about a soft landing. The biggest real issue is the budget shortfall, and that's more of an inconvenience than a disaster. The retail sector is hurting, but a cooldown in consumerism might do the country good - as long as the salaries are growing and unemployment is kept low, nobody I care about is seriously hurt by it. Same with real estate: people hold on to their property rather than flipping it, construction is still puttering along, and real estate developers must die.

Economy is cyclical. Now, what do we do when we get to the other side of the crisis?

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Estonia's Ugliest Computer

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

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

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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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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Poignant



Wahaahahahahhaahaaa. :D

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

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

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cheddar Gorge


Cheddar
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Not only has it survived two months in the unrefrigerated bowels of the international postal system (plus a week or two in my fridge), but is, indeed, delicious.

Probably won't get through all of it on my own. Anyone? BuellerJustin?

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Resolution


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

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

-A.



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



And my website traffic over the entire debacle:



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

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Bear with me.



I haven't written anything in a few weeks now (been busy with a side-project - I'll plug it here once done, and you'll be able to judge me on my technical writing skills). I have a good idea for an article, but I promised Baltlantis first crack at it. My guilt over procrastination is alleviated somewhat by the fact that they aren't actually paying me anything.

Anyway, an article in Wired Magazine talks about an event I was marginally involved in; records of that event are hosted on AnTyx. I am extremely impressed with my web host for handling the rush of traffic you see in the graph above; still, it's not completely impossible that I will actually run out of bandwidth this month. I am supposed to have an amount of bandwidth far in excess of my needs, and the pages in question are almost completely plaintext, but who knows.

Stay tuned...

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Obligatory US Elections Post, Vol. I



No further comment. :)

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Freeway Light


Freeway Light
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
I have seen the Sun over the mountains of Reykjavik. I have seen the dusk in the Scandinavian Ridge. I have seen the Aurora Borealis in the Bothnic Bay, and an enormous firestorm over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

But, even though this cameraphone photo doesn't do it justice, I have never seen the light quite so unreal as it is on the Tallinn-Tartu road, on the last Sunday of December, doing 120km/h straight into a 3pm sunset.

Happy New Year!

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Author, in Need of a Haircut


Yours Truly
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Now everyone can see what Giustino meant. :)

I am very rarely happy with pictures of myself, and this is that rare occasion. In fact I wanted to download the picture right away, and as I fumbled with the big DSLR, I knocked my phone off the desk. It's a Motorola V500, a clamshell, and it was open; it landed face-down and broke the hinge. No worries; it was three years old, almost to the day, and I have been looking for an excuse to get rid of it.

So now I have a Nokia 6500 Classic. Over two years ago, I wrote about the lack of killer features in mobile phones these days. To be entirely honest, I'm still not convinced; the camera and Bluetooth were the last technical innovations that I thought were really desirable. GPS might be the next one, but it's not mainstream yet. Other than that, in three years there has been almost no progress in handset design. The one thing that's relatively common in phones today, but wasn't when I bought my V500, are sensor buttons, and they suck. I've never kept a phone as long as I kept the V500, and that's because there was no phone meanwhile that I really wanted.

I've never liked Nokias, either. They're decent phones, but extremely default-choice; I've always thought Nokias are bought by people with no imaginations. I've never owned a Nokia, in fact. I've had various Motorolas (including a T191 which was actually an Acer), Siemenses, Ericssons - before they were bought by Sony - but never a Nokia.

But I do like the 6500c. It's thin, it's metal, it's got an amazing screen (although my V500 had a really good one as well), and it looks awesome. And for once in my life, I get to use all the gigantic infrastructure that Nokia's market penetration has created. Long before the iPod got an entourage of third parties manufacturing accessories in translucent white plastic, Nokia allowed people to customize their phones with ringtones and wallpapers and games, and absolutely everything exciting to do with mobile phones came out on a Nokia first. Now, I get to enjoy that.

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Fail



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

(Original image from Postimees.)

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Thursday nights in Tartu...


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

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

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Blatant


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

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

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


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

Are you scared yet?

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Politically Conscious


Politically Conscious
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
My commenters say the best thing Estonia can do is open up trade with Georgia. Well, I'm doing my part. :)

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gold & Green


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

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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Monday, July 30, 2007

More Lolcatz


Sholdurz: yours truly.
Kitteh: Die Katze.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Hans Rosling: Seemingly Impossible Is Possible



Seriously. You need to watch this.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Art & Craft

Two new sci-fi movies came out in the Tartu cinema last week. One was the new Fantastic Four, probably the weakest comic book adaptation I've seen so far. I was not impressed by the first movie, but I thought the second one would be entertainingly bad - but it wasn't. It was offensively bad.

It is absolutely possible to make a bad movie in a very good way. I really liked the third Fast & Furious flick, because they went back to what made the first one so popular - on the one hand, delivering the silly one-liners with a straight face, and on the other, not taking themselves too seriously. Fantastic Four absolutely does take itself seriously; it carries the comic tradition of claiming to be high literature without any actual artistic merit, but a ton of cliches (including the toothache inducing "with power comes responsibility"). The movie isn't even good for eye candy, as the supposed sex-bomb Jessica Alba could not act to save her life - though nobody seems to have had the courage to tell her. For Miss Alba, a dramatic scene consists of tilting her head sideways and staring upwards, which only makes her look like a retarded German Shepherd.

The other film was Next. Now, let me start off by recommending this film: it's quite good and you should watch it. But personally, I was bothered a bit by the duality of the plot. It's based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, and while I haven't read the story itself (or much of this author, in fact), I do recognize the theme and structure of 60s science fiction. I can tell, from the adapted movie, that the original story was not made as an action thriller; it was far more about the character's attitude towards his special ability and how it affected his life. The story itself is, curiously about power and responsibility - but because the implementation is so very un-jingoistic, it feels organic and doesn't bother me. The first half of the movie, aside from the random Dodge plug scene, was sufficiently true to the spirit of science fiction's golden age.

The second half of it is action, which doesn't fit in with the original feel of the story, but here's the thing - they did the action outstandingly well. With very little special effects and no gimmicky photography, they played upon the main character's special ability to create a sequence of dynamic and fresh action scenes. If any of this was in Dick's text, I'm certain it was either a plot device or a token effort to get the attention of the magazine-reading youth - but the way they did it on screen justified the extra attention in the adaptation.

The biggest problem with the movie is the cast. Nicholas Cage plays the main character, and again, he does it very well; however, he's too famous for the role. His distinctive looks and voice mean that he is perceived through his previous characters - a mix of the action hero from Gone in 60 Seconds and the whatever-it-takes operator from Lord of War. Cage by no means does a bad job, but I think the film would feel a lot less fragmented if the main role was given, say, to Jim Caviezel - or any typical Hollywood hunk waiting for a big break. The rest of the celebrity cast are also quite good, especially Julianne Moore, but Next is the sort of film that should have been done with unknowns - both to boost their careers by providing an early cult classic to put in their IMDB profile, and to not distract the viewer from the plot and the action.

It was only half an hour after I left the cinema that I realized they left a gigantic plot hole - similar to the one in Ronin, but there it actually served to contrast the rest of the film, the lack of resolution carrying its own message. In Next, the hole was far more blatant - but it still very nearly worked. The movie is that good.

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I Has A Lolcats

A bit of sillyness from last weekend. Original pics (c) me and a couple other people, quotes by me.








Starring Bergut as the Kung Fu Master, and an as-yet-unnamed kitten as Kitteh.

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