The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'europe'
As of midnight last night, the UK is no longer a member of the EU. The occasion was met with the characteristic boorishness from the triumphant bigots and pub bores assembled in Parliament Square; meanwhile, in Norwich, signs went up telling people that from now on, only “Queens English” (by which, presumably, they did not mean the English used in Run-DMC lyrics) may be spoken from now on.
In Brussels, the occasion was marked more salubriously: MEPs sang Auld Lang Syne, and some predicted that the UK may return to the EU some day; or in their words, this is “not adieu but au revoir”. However, I suspect that this will never happen.
In the long term, it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU, primarily because, the more time passes, the more likely it is that either the UK, the EU or both will not exist. The imminent end of the EU, of course, was gleefully welcomed by the Faragists and their friends in Moscow and the Reactionary International, with Brexit being intended as the first domino in the unravelling of the post-WW2 liberal international order, and its replacement with a Hobbesian arrangement of spheres of influence, as per Aleksandr Dugin's Eurasianism (Eurasia, of course, would be governed, some parts more directly than others, from Moscow; the English gammon, however, are free to convince themselves, that in the oceanic sphere, Britannia will once again rule the waves as God intended). Of course, the other dominos failed to follow suit, and in fact, the travails of Britain, the one-time exemplar of level-headed pragmatic governance immune to hot-blooded ideological fervor, have arguably inoculated other European states against wanting out. (For example, in Sweden, both the far right and far left repudiated their goals of leaving the EU.) So it looks like Putin's troll farms have their work cut out for them.
The end of the UK seems less remote. Already, Northern Ireland, that unwieldy holdover of Empire, has been more or less sacrificed after the DUP overplayed their hand. (The post-Brexit arrangements will involve an effective border in the Irish Sea, leaving Ireland economically as a cohesive unit, almost as if it wasn't the 17th century any more; meanwhile, public opinion in Northern Ireland is shifting steadily in favour of, or at least non-opposition to, reunification with the Irish Republic, which by now is quite obviously (a) no longer a Catholic sectarian state, (b) currently quite a bit more reasonable than the UK, and (c) a member of a powerful economic club.) Opinion in Scotland was also strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, and is arguably shifting towards support for independence and rejoining the EU as a separate country, where former EU head Donald Tusk said they would be welcome. However, this may not be straightforward.
Scotland, in theory, resolved to rule out independence for at least a generation if not for all time, with their referendum shortly before Britain voted to leave the EU. Of course, part of the incentive was that a Unionist Scotland would have remained in the EU, whereas an independent one would have had to queue for accession somewhere behind Albania. In any case, Prime Minister Johnson, a man known for his personal integrity, has ruled out any further independence referendum for Scotland. Which lands things in a stalemate.
Perhaps Westminster genuinely believe that they can head off any Scottish secession, and presumably over time, neutralise the SNP and reduce Scottish separatism to a quaint form of local colour, alongside Cornish pasties and gurning contests in Carlisle. Possibly there are people in the Conservative and Unionist Party and/or the Home Office who are keen for a test of modern counterinsurgency tactics, and who bet that, had Britain known in 1916 what they do now, they would still have Ireland as a loyal dominion today. And with modern mass-surveillance technology, there is a point there. The security services have the means to get an abundance of data on everyone in the UK today, from social graphs of contacts to GPS traces of mobile phone locations. Given sufficient investment and effort, that could be turned into a social graph of the entire Scottish population, with each person's degree and form of connection to the separatist movement being known, and searchable. If, for example, MI5 need to find a handful of people socially connected to separatist activists but reluctant to get involved, who may be amenable to pressure to act as informants, that is a graph query. On a more acute level, every organisational graph has a few key nodes which, if taken out, could discreetly disrupt its operations. A query could tell the security forces exactly whose brakes would need to fail on a treacherous road in order for recruitment to run out of steam 18 months down the track.
That is assuming that the goal is to crush the rebellious Scots and retain a pacified Scotland as a province of the UK. It could arguably be more rational for the Tories to rile the Scots into leaving, put in a token show of trying to stop them, and rejoice in the fact that the remaining United Kingdom of England and Wales will have a permanent Tory majority for at least a generation. Unless, of course, one is suffering from Dunning-Krugeresque delusions of far greater competence than one actually has.
Of course, this is in the long term. There is also the possibility that the Brexit project will run into trouble in the short term: that the British people's innate knack for free trade and/or True Brit won't suffice to allow them to reconquer the globe and, unconstrained by political correctness and beige Belgian bureaucracy, build a new empire even more glorious than the one Queen Victoria presided over; and instead, that a humbled Britain, bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, will show up in Brussels with a handful of petrol-station roses, begging to be readmitted, and conceding to adopting the Euro, entering the Schengen zone and replacing its power plugs with sensible ones. And as comforting as that thought might be, it is probably the least likely outcome of a crisis, considerably after others, such as Britain becoming a Puerto Rico-style US protectorate (under, of course, the sort of predatory terms one would expect from the Trump kleptocracy, which would probably involve Haiti-level debts on the shoulders of every Briton), joining the Eurasian Union (free trade with huge countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and no politically-correct human-rights regulations to annoy the Daily Mail readership), or just doubling down and transitioning to a Juche-style ideology of isolationism, with public hangings of “traitors” and “saboteurs” on the BBC every week to distract its starving population.
Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.
In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.
It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.
(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)
This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.
The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.
Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.
A few days ago, I travelled from London to Amsterdam by train. I caught the Eurostar from St. Pancras International to Brussels-Midi, and then caught a Thalys high-speed train, along the Belgian/Dutch coast with its grey concrete flatness, to my final destination. The journey went smoothly; check-in was quick, the trains were on time, and everything went to plan.
Two days later, the British Parliament voted, as expected, to unconditionally authorise leaving the EU. There was dissent (Corbyn's fragile authority over the Labour Party eroded further, with many MPs defying the whip to vote nay), but it meant little; an overwhelming majority voted aye, with a good proportion preceding their votes with speeches on why leaving the EU is a catastrophically bad idea and the action they're about to vote in favour of is stupid and/or undemocratic. Three cheers for the Westminster parliamentary system!
I have travelled by Eurostar before, but now it did feel a bit like the last days of an era. I can't help but think that, in five years' time, a journey such as mine will be more like a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, down to the onerous visa paperwork and customs checks required by the granite-hard Brexit we're now inevitably spiralling to, and the sense of exoticism of being among foreigners whose ways are not like ours. Indeed, it's not clear whether the Eurostar will still be running then; a lot of its business is contingent on both political and economic relations with the continent, and if steep tariff barriers go up and Britain reorients towards its former Empire, or perhaps towards a coalition of nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia it shares a disdain for politically-correct notions like “human rights” with, there'll be far less demand for travel across the Channel. (On the other hand, we just might need another runway or two at Heathrow.)
Progress is not a one-way ratchet; it can slip back. Just as there were serfs in feudal Europe who were descended from the free citizens of Greece and Rome, today's world, with all its mundane annoyances, may be an unfathomable, quasi-mythical golden age to our descendants. For example, in ten years' time in Russia, there will be a generation of young people who have no awareness of LGBT issues; they will, of course, know from playground whispers and insulting graffiti that homosexuality exists, but it will be either associated with child molesters or else be something disgusting and unnatural that happens in seedy places alongside crime and squalor; meanwhile, the very idea of transgenderedness will be the stuff of circus sideshows. (The young Russians who happen to be gay or transgendered will not have a pleasant time.) By the same token, the generation of British young adults some ten years later will, for the most part, have never travelled to Europe or associated with Europeans, in much the way that the typical young Briton today has never spent time in China and knows little about contemporary Chinese culture. To them, and to whom tales of Easyjetting to a weekender at Berghain, spending a semester studying on Erasmus in Lisbon or Leuven, or hanging out or going out with people whose first language isn't English and whose cultural assumptions differ subtly from one's own in a thousand ways will seem as exotic as the world of pre-war travelogues. Few of them will have met an European, and the image of Europeans will converge onto outlandish stereotypes: half berets and baguettes, half tabloid slights about garlic and vino, loose sexual morés and poor personal hygiene, and the odd bit of weirdly displaced Islamophobia or reheated red-baiting (“I heard that Belgium is an ISIS rape camp/all the supermarket shelves in Denmark are empty and people are fighting like rats over canned food because their economy has been ruined by socialism!”).
The results of Eurovision 2014 are in, and, as reported here, the big winner was Austria's Conchita Wurst, a bearded drag performer, with a resolute and melodramatic torch song titled Rise Like A Phoenix. Wurst (whose real name is Tom Neuwirth) won a runaway victory, with 290 points and a string of 12s, including ones from countries who might otherwise haver found a bearded drag performer too transgressive. The runner-up was the Netherlands, 52 points behind with a rather nice piece of slow-burning Americana.
2014 was arguably the most geopolitically charged Eurovision Song Contest in years, if not decades; the kitschy music equivalent of the World Chess Championship of 1972, in that, within its formalised, tightly circumscribed arena, the tensions of an active geopolitical fault line manifested themselves. As back then, the fault line was between the West and Russia, only the ideologies and alignments were different.
One thing that was evident was a collapse of Russia's public image at Eurovision; no longer were they another country in friendly competition; they were the enemy, the face of oppression. Their performers (two teenaged girls who, to be fair, probably had little to do with the invasion of Crimea or anti-gay laws) were booed, as was their announcer during the voting, or the few instances of other countries, mostly former Soviet satellite states, giving Russia douze points. Also telling were the low scores which Russia got; whereas in the past, states bordering Russia or containing large Russian-speaking populations (as most former Soviet republics did, thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes) could be counted on to give Mother Russia a solid vote, this largely seemed to collapse. This seems to support reports of a schism between ethnic Russian minorities in countries such as the Baltic states and the state of Russia, with many Russian-speaking citizens of other countries deciding that their feelings for their linguistic homeland don't translate into loyalty to an aggressive authoritarian regime.
An obvious proximate cause of this collapse was the Ukrainian crisis; within days of the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia annexing the Crimea and making threatening noises at the rest of Ukraine (and some to say Finland, the Baltic States or even Alaska may be next in the hungry Red Bear's sight). Finally, the half-hearted pretence that Russia was a democracy (albeit a managed one, like, you know, Singapore or someone) and a member in good standing of the community of peaceful, cooperative nations was discarded for good, and a more brutal, Hobbesian order asserted itself for all to see. And no longer shackled by the need to feign liberalism or tolerance, Russia has been moving as rapidly at home as it has abroad; just this week, a law requiring bloggers to register with the government has been passed.
Russia's anti-gay laws, and the tacitly state-sanctioned persecution of gay Russians by vigilante groups had already been on the radar, particularly in the context of Eurovision (which, whilst not specifically a gay event, has always had a strong gay following, because camp). The disproportionately harsh prosecution of Pussy Riot, whilst attracting less criticism in more conservative countries, didn't do Russia any favours either, and the gradual closing down of opposition media and occasional unsolved murders of journalists did not make for an optimistic mood. Recently, these elements have been converging to form an image not of a country struggling with democracy and pluralism, but one governed by an ideology which holds these ideas in contempt as signs of weakness, a country where closing itself off against the outside world. The ideology of Putin's Russia is what they call the Russkaya ideya (Russian Idea), or sometimes “Eurasianism” or “National Bolshevism”; explicitly anti-liberal, mystical rather than rationalistic, strongly authoritarian and hostile to foreign influences. The ideology is new, though it is synthesised from a strain of absolutism that has existed in Russia, in one form or another, since the time of the Czars: the State being at the centre of things (the “unique state-government civilisation” that is Russia, according to its ideologues), and all power flowing from it. Even the Russian Orthodox Church, with its enhanced influence in the new order, is subordinate to the state; in Russia, God serves the Czar.
It is not clear whether, had Russia kept its troops within its borders, paid lip service to liberalism and pluralism and not said anything about gays and “traditional values”, Conchita Wurst would have won, certainly by such a large margin; her song was good, in a Bond-theme sort of way, but not overwhelmingly superior to everything else. The Netherlands' entry (which came second), for example, was quite good, and there was a sentimental case for giving the gong to Sweden, it being the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning and all. (Sweden's entry was in the good-but-not-memorable Eurovision standard basket, which, geopolitics notwithstanding, might well have sufficed.) Undoubtedly some of the douze points Austria got were a vote not so much for the music but for what it represented and, perhaps more importantly, against what an endorsement of it represented a rejection of.
With liberalism as anathema to this new cult of Holy Russia, Eurovision has been in its sights for a while; Russian legislators have condemned it since last year, and there are calls to set up a rival one, one with firmly enforced “traditional values”. (This wouldn't be the first time something similar happened; during the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact countries briefly attempted to run a song contest to rival Eurovision; it was held in Poland, and was by all accounts a ramshackle affair. Interestingly, neutral Finland participated in both Eurovision and it.) In any case, Conchita Wurst's resounding victory will probably do little to calm the situation, but is likely to embolden those in Russia calling for restrictions on such foreign imports. (Their proposed solution, to omit the offending song in Russia, would be forbidden under EBU rules; some years ago, Lebanon ended up dropping out of Eurovision because the rules did not permit it to ban its citizens from voting for Israel.) It would be unsurprising if Russia (and perhaps some politically dependent states like Belarus) are notably absent from next year's contest, and the new cultural iron curtain becomes slightly more opaque.
Another interesting consequence may be that of Russia ending up owning a certain type of reactionary conservatism, making it less palatable abroad, and forcing conservatives in eastern Europe to choose between siding with the Great Bear across the border or siding with the gays and feminists within their own borders, establishing a geopolitical schism much like the Cold War one, only this time with elements of the Right rather than the Left being beholden to Moscow. We are already seeing admiration for Putin from the envious beta-males of the populist Right, from UKIP in Britain to teabaggers in America; if Russia succeeds in establishing a “Conservative International“ (along the lines of Stalin's Comintern) and drawing like-minded reactionaries and authoritarians abroad into its orbit, we may soon see Alexander Dugin's books on Eurasianism (in English translation, from a state-run publishing house in Moscow) alongside the Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises and Bill O'Reilly that fill the reading lists of the right-wing fringe.
We Need You Now (More Than Ever), a video by Danish artists Wooloo, in the style of We Are The World-style celebrity charity ensemble records, sardonically imploring the Catholic Church to dip into its vast wealth and bail Europe's economies out:
This video is being screened until 17 November at the Göteborg International Biennial for Contemporary Art at Röda Sten in Gothenburg, along with Chilean artist Fernando Sanchez Castillo's Pegasus Dance, an amorous ballet for two riot-control water-cannon trucks set to a languid waltz:
Spain is looking at changing its time zone. While its longitude is close to Britain's, Spain shares with the rest of western and central Europe the condition of being one hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time. This state of affairs originated during World War 2, when the dictator Franco unilaterally changed Spain's timezone to match that of Germany, in solidarity with the Nazi regime; what the iron fist of fascism put in place, inertia kept in place, leading to a national case of jetlag:
"Because of a great historical error, in Spain we eat at 2pm, and we don't have dinner until 9pm, but according to the position of the sun, we eat at the same time as the rest of Europe: 1pm and 8pm," explained Professor Nuria Chinchilla, director of the International Centre for Work and Family at the IESE Business School. "We are living with 71 years of jet-lag, and it's unsustainable.
Another thing that needs to change is late-night prime-time TV, said Buqueras. "In England, the largest TV audience is at 7 or 8pm, but in Spain, it's 10pm. Because at 8pm in Spain, barely 50% of the population is at home, and you have to wait until 10pm to find that number of people at home, thus guaranteeing the viewing figures needed for prime time. Sometimes football matches don't kick off until 11pm!" he said.
All of this means people go to bed far later than they should and get less sleep than they need. Studies suggest Spaniards sleep an hour less than the rest of Europe, which means more accidents at work, less efficiency, and more children missing school. Additionally they work longer hours than their German and British counterparts, but are much less efficient.Any change to Spain's time zone is likely to also result in an end (or at least a great reduction) to the traditional siesta, the midday break for a long lunch and a nap.
Tomorrow, Germany goes to the polls, to elect its federal parliament, the Bundestag. The Bundestag is proportional, with members being elected using a complicated voting system, and the government is always a coalition of several parties. And there are many parties; as well as the ones in the press (the centre-right Christian Democrats, the centre-left Social Democrats, the neoliberal Free Democrats, the Greens (founded by none other than Joseph Beuys), the Left (a coalition of Eastern ex-Communists and Western leftists too radical for the SDP), the Pirate Party (who don't seem to be doing too well) and the just-different-enough-from-the-Nazis-to-be-legal NPD), there is a menagerie of fringe parties, including Berlin bohemians, more Berlin bohemians, actual Communists, feminists pushing for the establishment of a matriarchy, Bavarian separatists (who, once they gain independence, want to repeal smoking and firearms regulations), spiritual mystics (whose policies include developing the use of zero-point energy), and the familiar Lyndon LaRouche conspiracy kooks (whose policies include moving Berlin away from “unproductive fields such as fashion, film, leisure, sport etc.”, and on veganism, have to say that “time will make this fad disappear”).
In the German electoral system (unlike, to choose an example at random, the Australian senate), a party needs at least 5% of the vote to get seats in the Bundestag; as such, it's unlikely that any of these minor parties, which typically get less than 1% in elections, will get up.
The Financial Times' blog section, of all places, has an interesting travelogue of the southeastern Danube, the ancient dividing line between central Europe and the Balkans/the West and the East/Catholicism and Orthodoxy/Christendom and the Ottoman Empire:
A Roman bridge linking what is now Romania with Bulgaria collapsed in the fourth century and from then until another was built 1954, there was no crossing. This summer saw the opening of only the second link between the countries across the Danube, a 2km, €245m bridge between Vidin in Bulgaria and the Romanian city of Calafat. Engineers working on the project, now grandly christened the New Europe Bridge, resorted to a third language, English, to communicate with the precision required for the millimetrical convergence of rails and highway.
Our trip had begun in Bucharest, unexpectedly appealing in a melancholy way with its crumbling neoclassical buildings. The Gallic inspiration for what was once celebrated as “Little Paris” is evident in broad boulevards radiating from Place Charles de Gaulle – which our guide described as “named after the great French revolutionary” – an attribution that might have surprised the conservative general. The square was originally named Piata (meaning “marketplace”) Jianu, after local folk hero Iancu Jianu. It was renamed Piata Adolf Hitler in 1940; followed, in 1948, by Piata Generalissim IV Stalin, in honour of the country’s “liberation” by the Red Army.
Just off it is the outdoor Village Museum, where traditional houses from Transylvania (complete with anti-vampire features) and other regions have been reassembled beside a lake. Chickens scratch the dirt, the property of the peasants periodically imported to lend authenticity.Meanwhile, to commemorate the upcoming German elections, the Guardian's user-contributed photo section has a gallery titled Alternative Germany, most of which is not art-squats in Berlin.
Der Spiegel has an interesting interview with Adam Michnik, former Polish Solidarność dissident and now editor of the broadsheet Gazeta Wyborcza, talking about democracy, authoritarianism and civil society in Europe, looking partly at the hardline authoritarian-nationalist turn Hungary has taken, and to a lesser extent the Catholic-nationalist right in Poland:
SPIEGEL: Orbán is trying to direct his country into a "system of national cooperation without compromises." What does he mean by that?
Michnik: British historian Norman Davies called this form of democracy a "government of cannibals." Democratic elections are held, but then the victorious party devours the losers. The gradual coup consists in getting rid of or taking over democratic institutions. These people believe that they are the only ones in possession of the truth. At some point, parties no longer mean anything, and the system is based, once again, on a monologue of power. The democratic institutions in the West are more deeply embedded in the West than in Eastern Europe. Democracy can defend itself there. Everything is still fragile in our countries, even two decades after the end of communism.
Michnik: Back in 1990, I wrote that nationalism is the last stage of communism: a system of thought that gives simple but wrong answers to complex questions. Nationalism is practically the natural ideology of authoritarian regimes.
A minor blow has been struck against the Zuckerberg Doctrine, the principle that users of social websites must identify themselves by their legal “wallet names”, presenting one identity to everyone from employers to gaming buddies to credit-rating agencies and advertisers (especially those): Germany's Data Protection Commissioner has ruled that users have a right to use pseudonyms, and in prohibiting this in its terms of service, Facebook is in violation of Germany's strict privacy laws. Facebook, however, has asserted that this law is not valid, as its European operations are based in Ireland, which has a more libertarian legal regime.
As Italy's economy flounders, Der Spiegel has a report on the different way of business and administration in Italy's south:
The politicians have proven particularly adept at finding public service jobs for their friends. Today, some 144,000 Sicilians get their salary from the state, and one in eight of them is the head of something or other. Many administrative offices are full of people who have no idea what they're supposed to be doing.
The mafia controls large parts of waste collection and the transport industry, trades in milk and cheese and builds roads under public contracts. The system of public tenders lends itself to all kinds of fraud. But it's not being changed. People who win a contract to build a section of motorway for €100 million sell it on for €90 million -- without lifting a finger. The buyers pass it on to a third company for €80 million. And so on. In the end, someone builds the actual road that should cost €100 million for just €10 million -- and the result looks correspondingly unsatisfactory.
A prime example of this is the A3 motorway from Salerno to the city of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy. Construction began in 1962, and almost every kilometer was built by a different firm. When the motorway was finally finished in 1974, there was -- surprise, surprise -- no emergency lane. After more than 20 years of debate, renovation work begain in 1997 and the A3 is now scheduled for completion in 2017. The estimated construction costs are 10 times greater than planned. There is no hint of national outrage or political consequences.Not all Italians are putting up with such commentary from the Germans (i.e., the ones left to pay the bill at the end of the night): Italy's disgraced former pornocrat, Silvio Berlusconi, is having his tabloids call the Germans Nazis, in between commenting unflatteringly on Chancellor Angela Merkel's appearance. (In Germany, you see, women politicians typically don't ascend to office from having worked as showgirls.) Perhaps he's hoping to reclaim an Italy kicked out of the EU as his personal fiefdom?
Meanwhile in France, a statue of former supermodel and First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy has been installed in a Parisian suburb. The statue was commissioned before her husband, President Sarkozy was swept from power and disappeared from public view shortly after losing immunity from prosecution, and shortly before his home and two offices were raided by police:
The Sarkozys' decision to go to ground contrasts magnificently with the opulent lifestyle the once publicity obsessed pair showed off when they were in the Elysée Palace. Private jets with made-to-order bread stoves, daily fresh flower bills of more than €750, Vanity Fair cover shoots and even a CD release by the self-styled "rock chick" first lady were all part of a presidential package which so disgusted ordinary French people that they ended up replacing Sarkozy with the most overtly leftwing government for decades.
In Hungary, the nation's medical research council has asked public prosecutors to investigate a genetic-diagnostic company that certified that a member of parliament did not have Roma or Jewish heritage. The parliamentarian in question is a member of the far-right racial-nationalist Jobbik party.
Nagy Gén scanned 18 positions in the MP’s genome for variants that it says are characteristic of Roma and Jewish ethnic groups; its report concludes that Roma and Jewish ancestry can be ruled out. The certificate adds: “For an interpretation of the test result and for genetic consultation relating to the family-tree research, please contact us as soon as convenient.”
The certificate first appeared on a right-wing website, which described the intention behind the gene test as “noble”, although it questioned the science. After the news blog Petőfi utca republished the certificate on 14 May, the Hungarian Society of Human Genetics issued a statement condemning the test. István Raskó, director of the Institute of Genetics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged, and the society’s vice-president, says that it is impossible to deduce origins from genetic variations at a few places in the genome. “This test is complete nonsense and the affair is very harmful to the profession of clinical genetics,” he says.
Some takeaways from Eurovision 2012:
- Azerbaijan's Eurovision budget seems to have run out some time after the building of the stadium; hence the reused footage in the interstitial tourism ads they show between songs. But, as they are proud to inform us, they have electric light. And tea. And horses and horsemen. And, judging from the clips, Baku looks like quite a livable metropolis, as long as you're heterosexual and not inclined to take an unwelcome interest in the way you are governed. They're very proud of those flame towers, it would seem.
- This time, the UK seemed to have taken it seriously; rather than sending a few talent-show contestants to demonstrate what a joke they think the whole thing is, they sent veteran crooner Engelbert Humperdinck. As was pointed out, Humperdinck was older not only than most if not all of the other contestants, but than 22 of the countries competing as well. His song was actually not bad, and he performed well. He came second-last; some said it had to do with Britain drawing the shortest straw and getting the first slot, and consequently being forgotten by the audiences, though it could just as well be residual antipathy to Britain in Eurovision.
- Last place went to Norway, who had a fairly average club-pop number sung by a buff young man of Iranian heritage. Its main value was probably in annoying the Iranian theocracy, which is Azerbaijan's southern neighbour and has issued statements condemning Azerbaijan for hosting a “gay parade”. Of course, the odds of there being an actual gay parade in Azerbaijan are next to non-existent, though compared with its neighbour, it may well be edgily cosmopolitan.
- Norway's humiliation is compounded by the fact that the crown was taken by its neighbour and rival, Sweden. The Swedes entered a slick piece of dance-pop which had already topped the charts in half a dozen countries, though, which strikes me as a bit dodgy, at least in spirit, suggesting that, just as the Olympics has become a marketing exercise backed with SWAT teams and missile batteries, Eurovision is well on its way from being an endearingly amateurish exercise in peaceful cultural exchange to being a trade fair for the commercial pop music industries.
- If not the Swedes, who should have won? Well, Albania's entry (fronted by a female “experimental jazz singer” with a powerful voice) was good. Malta's entry deserved to end up somewhere higher than the arse-end of the rankings where it landed. And the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's entry combined melodramatic balladeering with chunky metal guitar riffs in the finest eastern-European Eurovision-contestant tradition.
- Ireland once again entered Jedward, who can be best described as if 1980s boy band Bros were played by toy trolls. This time, they were dressed in silver space/robot suits, which (perhaps in an appropriately regional touch) looked like something from one of those low-budget Turkish knock-offs of Star Wars or Star Trek. Though this didn't change the fact that both their song and performance were mediocre.
Last week, The Guardian once again ran a series of articles on Europe today, with contributions from papers in France, Spain, Germany, Poland and Italy. Intended partly to combat the rise in anti-European sentiment in the wake of the financial crisis. Among other things, this includes a number of profiles of political leaders by journalists from other countries (i.e., an Italian perspective on Germany's Angela Merkel, a German view of Poland's Donald Tusk, and French and British pieces on the other country's leader), as well as a a section looking at, and responding to, national stereotypes in Europe:
What message do we Brits think we send when our signature cultural export of 2011 was Downton Abbey, a show entirely about the intricacies of class and which apparently longs for a return to Edwardian notions of hierarchy? The smash West End play One Man, Two Guvnors similarly revolves around class. Unfortunately, it's not just a foreigners' myth that in Britain how one speaks and what school one attended still counts.
There is a vibrancy to modern British life that eludes the cliche's grasp. There's a hint of it in that Polish suggestion that the Brits are "kind and friendly to immigrants". Compared with other European countries, it's probably true that Britain is, generally, more tolerant. Some of our public services – the NHS, the BBC – are still cherished. We are not merely a mini-America of let-it-rip free-marketism.
Efficiency is not really a Berlin thing. Take construction. To build 2km of new tram lines to connect the new central station, they set aside three years. Delays were not even factored in. In China, they'd have built whole new cities in that time, or a high-speed motorway across the entire country. Maybe the Chinese are the Germans of the 21st century. Or maybe Berliners are just not typical Germans. Can you stereotype a country if its capital is not typical?
In Italy, sex drive increases with age. Naturally, it is also possessed to a degree by the young (this is why we have children), but it is only after the age of 50 that the Italian male finally dives headlong into adolescence. We are the only nation to have had a prime minister in his 70s who wears a bandana on his head like a tennis player or a rap singer.
The dust hasn't yet settled after David Cameron vetoed the EU financial treaty, setting Britain on a course to the periphery of the EU or beyond, but already the Euroskeptics are lining up to give Johnny Foreigner what for. The latest to stick it to the Frogs and Krauts is the mayor of Bishop's Stortford, whose particular exercise of Churchillian bulldog spirit has been to withdraw his town's twinning arrangement with Villiers sur Marne and Friedberg. Just because.
Mayor John Wyllie has written letters to his honourable counterparts in the town's two twin cities: Friedberg near the German financial capital of Frankfurt, and Villiers-sur-Marne near Paris. He isn't writing to invite them to the usual partnership ceremonies, conferences or youth exchange programs. He is writing to cancel the town's friendship with them, after 46 years. On September 28, 2012, Wyllie informed them that his town would sever all ties with the twin towns. He gave no reason for this break-off of diplomatic relations.
Mike Wood, 66, the only council member from the pro-European Liberal Democrat party, says Tories are "usually normal people. But whenever you mention Europe they turn into some kind of monster."This comes on the heels of rising anti-European, and particularly anti-German, sentiment in the British populist media, with old WW2 stereotypes being dusted off and trotted out at all the inappropriate moments:
Distrust of the European Union goes hand-in-hand with distrust of Germany, especially among "euroskeptics," the current euphemism for the many haters of the EU in Britain. The headline "Welcome to the Fourth Reich" in the high-circulation Daily Mail summarized the German-French plans to rescue the monetary union.(You'd think that, coming from a paper with the Daily Mail's history, "Fourth Reich" would be a term of glowing praise...)
Anecdotally, I've noticed that, while the supermarkets of Britain are full of Christmas puddings of all sorts, there is no stollen bread, a British Christmas tradition since cheap flights to German Christmas markets began. I wonder whether the decision to not order any this year comes from market research surveys into anti-German and/or anti-Continental sentiment among the British public.
In his latest Poptimist column, Tom Ewing writes about recordings attributed to imaginary authors, typically at some time in an imagined past. More specifically, he writes about Science Of The Sea, a record allegedly made in 1979 by Jürgen Müller, a German oceanographer and amateur musician who was inspired to make a record of ambient electronic compositions by the hours he spent on field trips out at sea, one of whose 100 privately-pressed copies was apparently rediscovered in 2011:
Except, of course, he probably did no such thing. It seems likely that there never was an expedition, or a young biologist, or a private pressing. Science of the Sea is a 2011 record from fin to tail, and the rather lovely tale of Jürgen Müller is entirely invented. Did suspecting this make me like the record less? Certainly not. If anything, I enjoyed it more. As a small child I would sometimes be allowed to sit up with my parents and watch science documentaries, like Carl Sagan's Cosmos. I didn't understand the science, and the documentaries were broadcast late so I was on the edge of sleep in any case, but I remembered their soothing flow: The infinite turned into a kind of bedtime story. Meanwhile, on library bookshelves I would sometimes find 1950s and 60s paperbacks about modern-day scientist-adventurers like Jacques Cousteau or Thor Heyerdahl-- giving the impression of an age of clean-limbed scientific heroism I'd tantalizingly missed, one that looked very much like a Tintin comic.
So no surprise that some of what I get from Science of the Sea-- there by intention or not-- is a pang of love and loss for this imagined time. More intriguingly, though, if the record is fictional it feels like this might have been liberating for its mysterious creator. The album is full of beautifully cornball seascape touches-- flickering arpeggios and note-clouds which practically demand you start thinking about shoals of fish darting back and forth outside a bathysphere window. Sit down and make an electronic album about the ocean now and you might find yourself trying to dodge these clichés. Sit down and role-play a naive non-musician inching towards transcendence at the turn of the 1980s and you can fully embrace them.Science Of The Sea is not the only recent example of its kind; another recent recording shedding light on an underexplored, romantic and distinctly alien corner of the modern past was the retrospective of the Endless House Foundation. The conceit of Endless House presents an experimental electronic music collective, founded in the early 1970s by an eccentric, wealthy Czech audiophile, situated in an ultra-modernistic studio/discotheque complex in the heart of the Bialowieska primeval forest in eastern Poland and informed by the breadth of European avant-garde design and architectural movements of the 20th century, it thrived for must six weeks in the summer of 1973 before collapsing under the weight of its expensive impracticality, leaving behind only some scraps of biographical information, a few ambiguous photographs of improbable architectural spaces, and the curiously pristine recordings of the resident musicians' compositions, which, it seems, prefigured everything from Kraftwerk to Detroit techno, much in the same way that Delia Derbyshire invented IDM in 1965 but neglected to tell the world about it. The fragments have remained buried until recently, when an unnamed British curator unearthed the pieces, and managed to track down the original participants, getting interviews and even a mix, from them.
Of course, it's quite possible that none of this really happened. The story of Endless House reads almost like a Wes Anderson set-piece, only set in a nebulous European avant-garde as seen from outside. Unsurprisingly, the illusion doesn't hold up well to closer examination. For one, the idea that a group of Western European playboys could cross the Iron Curtain with impunity, bringing party guests and giant modular synthesisers with them, while the governments of the Eastern Bloc, still shocked by uprisings in Prague in 1968 and Warsaw in 1970, were in ideological lockdown, seems highly unlikely. (A non-fictional recent musical retrospective of East German electronic music reveals the extent of ideological control over music in the Eastern Bloc; in the DDR, the government only started allowing the production of electronic music in 1980, and even then anything that could be interpreted as critical of industrial society was verboten, leaving room only for ostensibly harmless cosmic psychedelia.) Over and above this, this improbable bubble is populated by a cast of exotically European bons vivants with names like Walter Schnaffs and Felix Uran, who speak in a mixture of English and German, but refer to distances in miles. Nonetheless, if you can suspend disbelief, imagine that the Cold War wasn't that big a deal and that an Austrian synthesist and socialite might sing about being sixteen miles from Saint-Tropez, in an avant-garde cyber-disco about that distance from the Polish-Soviet border, it's an entertaining story, and an even more entertaining record. (The tracks, listened to on their own, work as electronic music, and do evoke the world they purport to come from.)
Meanwhile, in a recent edition of Milan art journal Mousse, there is a retrospective of the works of Scottish-Italian artist Scotty Potenza, written by someone named Nick Currie:
The colour, shape and texture of fresh ice cream is certainly visible in Potenza’s acrylic gouaches; peach, pistachio and purply-red forest berries distinguish themselves forcefully from the sodden greens and asphalt greys of the Scottish industrial landscape. His subject-matter shares this otherness: influenced by the exciting first wave of Acid House culture in the late 1980s, Potenza evinces a non-Calvinist positivity more evocative of Chicago warehouses and Ibiza raves than Glasgow tenements. A Potenza painting incarnates not what Scotland is, but what it lacks.
As 1990s rave culture has continued to experience the bearhug embrace of mainstream acceptance in the UK — its visual values, once restricted to club flyers, now inform restaurant design, public information films and TV commercials for banks and building societies — Potenza has been granted a high-profile list of public commissions. His decoration of the walls of the Home Office lobby with a mural of happy ravers, their hands linked like the figures in Matisse’s La Danse, caused short-lived (and clearly manufactured) outrage in the tabloids, but has proved peculiarly popular with the civil servants who work in the building. A major mural at Finsbury Park underground station entitled Get On One Matey! was unfortunately damaged beyond repair in the 2011 riots. The vandals, caught on CCTV, are currently serving long prison sentences.
A few recent studies demonstrating the power of cultural transmission of values and attitudes over surprisingly long stretches of time: firstly, a set of surveys in central and eastern Europe has shown that trust in government officials is higher and corruption is lower in areas formerly governed by the Habsburg Empire, whose bureaucracy was considered to be more honest and competent than elsewhere in Europe at the time; the phenomenon has lasted from the end of World War 1 to the present day, surviving the redrawing of borders and different types of regimes, and to this day, levels of trust and corruption differ within the borders of countries between formerly Habsburg and, say, Ottoman or Russian-ruled areas.
On a darker note, another study in Germany has found that towns in which Jews were massacred during the Black Plague were more likely to support the Nazis and participated more enthusiastically in the Holocaust, some six centuries later.
On the eve of the Eurovision Song Contest, Der Spiegel has a piece on a group of academics who are looking at what the competition says about European cultures:
Take the 2007 winner, Serbia's Marija Serifovic. Many interpreted her act to be that of a campy, butch lesbian, but Gluhovic argues that people in the East viewed it differently, noting that the song's title, "Molitva" ("prayer"), is almost the same word in many Slavic languages. Viewers in Prague, Zagreb or Moscow may have been more inclined to think of the song as a prayer for a Serbia where EU sanctions against the former Milosevic regime had only just been lifted.
One thing neither academic disputes is the fact that countries in Eastern Europe and far beyond are investing heavily in their Eurovision acts as a way of polishing their images abroad. From Kiev to Moscow to Baku, tens of millions of euros have been spent on campaigns to burnish their images at Eurovision. Two approaches have proven highly popular -- either attempts to "self-exoticize" a country's "Orientalness" or Eastern culture, or to bring in famous producers to emulate Western pop styles.And while new arrivals go for nouveau-riche glamour to make an impression, those closer in seek to tone their appearance down, to distance themselves from their arriviste neighbours, not unlike the English class system:
Despite all the exuberant performers, some new entrants take a conservative approach. Researchers working on the Eurovision 'New Europe' project have seen a trend in Poland in which the country eschews the more outlandish performances adopted by some of its neighbors in favor of more mainstream pop. "In terms of their look and the way they sound, they have a strategy of disidentification with the more exotic East, thereby claiming its position in the Central European cultural core and values." The strategy has been a loser in terms of votes, however.Meanwhile, there is the question of Eurovision's campness and function as a signifier of gay identity, particularly in places where open homosexuality is disapproved of or worse:
At times, she continues, Eurovision can be outrageous, and at others downright silly, which all plays into its camp appeal. And in the past, Eurovision was a "secret code or club" for being gay in countries like Ireland, where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993. "You had a secret and your friends had a secret and you had those parties every year," Fricker says.
More recently, Eurovision has underscored differences in acceptance of homosexuality in different parts of Europe that give little reason to celebrate. When Belgrade hosted the contest in 2008, welcome packages for Eurovision attendees included warnings against displaying same-sex affection in a city that gets low marks for gay-friendliness. Moscow, which hosted in 2009, isn't exactly known as a bastion of tolerance either.Interestingly enough, in Australia, where Eurovision is broadcast most of a day later (a function of Australia having a lot of descendants of European migrants with connections to their old countries; the US, incidentally, doesn't have Eurovision, and Americans I've spoken to have found it befuddling, in the same way westerners see Japanese game shows), Eurovision isn't seen as a specifically gay thing, but rather a piece of kitsch to have a good laugh at with friends. This seems to be particularly common in the inner-city areas, populated by bohemians and avant-bourgeoisie who, thanks to SBS, have a finely tuned taste for Euro-kitsch.
Once a rich, almost craftsmanly, criminal tradition pickpocketing is dying out in America, due to the success of law enforcement campaigns against it and/or the shorter attention spans of today's juvenile delinquents. And some criminologists and folk historians are lamenting this loss:
Pickpocketing in America was once a proud criminal tradition, rich with drama, celebrated in the culture, singular enough that its practitioners developed a whole lexicon to describe its intricacies. Those days appear to be over. "Pickpocketing is more or less dead in this country," says Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, whose new book Triumph of the City, deals at length with urban crime trends. "I think these skills have been tragically lost. You've got to respect the skill of some pickpocket relative to some thug coming up to you with a knife. A knife takes no skill whatsoever. But to lift someone's wallet without them knowing …"
But even if Fagins abounded in the United States, it's unclear whether today's shrinking pool of criminally minded American kids would be willing to put in the time to properly develop the skill. "Pickpocketing is a subtle theft," says Jay Albenese, a criminologist at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It requires a certain amount of skill, finesse, cleverness, and planning, and the patience to do all that isn't there" among American young people. This is "a reflection of what's going on in the wider culture," Albenese says. If you're not averse to confrontation, it's much easier to get a gun in the United States than it is in Europe (though the penalties for armed robbery are stiffer). Those who have no stomach for violence can eke out a living snatching cell phones on the subway, which are much easier to convert to cash than stolen credit cards, or get into the more lucrative fields of credit card fraud or identity theft, which require highly refined skills that people find neither charming nor admirable in the least. Being outwitted mano a mano by a pickpocket in a crowded subway car is one thing; being relieved of your savings by an anonymous hacker is quite another.Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the craft of pickpocketing is alive and well in Europe, the home of many highly refined traditions and systems of apprenticeship:
This is not the case in Europe, where pickpocketing has been less of a priority for law enforcement and where professionals from countries like Bulgaria and Romania, each with storied traditions of pickpocketing, are able to travel more freely since their acceptance into the European Union in 2007, developing their organizations and plying their trade in tourist hot spots like Barcelona, Rome, and Prague. "The good thieves in Europe are generally 22 to 35," says Bob Arno, a criminologist and consultant who travels the world posing as a victim to stay atop the latest pickpocketing techniques and works with law enforcement agencies to help them battle the crime. "In America they are dying off, or they had been apprehended so many times that it's easier for law enforcement to track them and catch them."
Julian Assange is free on bail, while he awaits Sweden's extradition case against him. According to his lawyer, he was kept in the same cell in Wandsworth Prison that had previously housed Oscar Wilde. (Perhaps it's the celebrity suite?)
Of course, it is widely argued that the Swedish allegations (note: not charges), nebulous as they are, are merely the phony war before the main event, an attempt to extradite Assange to the US and make an example of him so that nobody tries aything like WikiLeaks again, and harmony is restored across the New World Order. The British government appealing against the bail decision, and claiming that the Swedish prosecutor had done so (which the Swedes denied) also adds to the suspicion. Earlier, Assange's lawyer claimed that, according to Swedish sources, a grand jury has already been impanelled in secret in Alexandria, Virginia. The latest rumours say that the US won't seek to try Assange for espionage (which was assumed to be shaky), but to try him for conspiracy, making a case that he conspired with accused leaker Bradley Manning. Given that Manning is likely to face capital treason charges and is being held in conditions said to amount to torture, he'd have a strong incentive to remember evidence implicating Assange. The problem with this is that it is only slightly less problematic, as according to some commentators, it would also criminalise investigative journalism in general.
If the US Government just wants to put the frighteners on other potential troublemakers, they could attempt to try Assange in a closed military tribunal, arguing that evidence for the prosecution (i.e., ECHELON intercepts or similar) cannot be revealed to civilians. Everybody will suspect it's a kangaroo court, but will also know that you don't fuck with Uncle Sam.
That is, of course, assuming that the British government agrees to extradite Assange to the US. It could always stand up and tell the Yanks where to stick their conspiracy charge. By the same token, England could always win the World Cup in 2014. In all likelihood, assuming that the US gives its assurances that the prosecution will not be seeking the death penalty (the main sticking point with EU countries), extradition should be straightforward. In the unlikely occurrence that extraditing him is politically unpalatable, Britain could just cancel his visa and deport him to Australia (the only country he is believed to hold citizenship), where, if PM Julia Gillard is any authority on the matter, he would be handed over to the FBI as soon as his plane landed. (They don't mess around with finicky issues of civil liberties in former penal colonies.)
Meanwhile, Assange is not the only one to fall foul of the European Arrest Warrant system, which establishes the legal fiction that all European justice systems are equivalent and requires European countries to honour other countries' arrest warrants automatically, and has led to some absurd situations:
This month I watched proceedings in Westminster magistrates' court as Jacek Jaskolski, a disabled 58-year-old science teacher, fought an EAW issued against him by his native Poland. Jaskolski – also the primary carer for his disabled wife – has been in the UK since 2004. His crime? Ten years ago, when he still lived in Poland, Jaskolski went over his bank overdraft limit.
In 2008 a Polish man was extradited for theft of a dessert from a restaurant, using a European arrest warrant containing a list of the ingredients. People are being flown to Poland in specially chartered planes to answer charges that would not be thought worthy of an arrest in the UK, while we pick up the tab for police, court, experts' and lawyers' time to process a thousand cases a year. This whole costly system is based on the assumption that the criminal justice systems of countries such as Poland are reasonable enough that it is worth complying with all their requests.Meanwhile, the net is closing around those involved in online activist/terrorist group Anonymous: a Greek designer has been arrested after leaving his details in a press release, and Scotland Yard say that they have been monitoring the group since their attacks on copyright enforcement groups. It is not clear whether post-9/11 antiterrorism powers are being used.
Europe's greatest linguistic curiosity is arguably the Swiss village of Bivio (which, in Italian, means "crossroads"), whose 200 or so inhabitants juggle several languages and dialects, depending on context, and yet somehow manage to get along:
A quarter speak the official language, Italian, one fifth speak Romansch, while the majority speak some variety of German. Amazingly, they all seem to understand one another. At the grocer's, everyone speaks their mother tongue, and everyone gets the right change.
They're well-trained. At the kindergarten, they speak Italian on Tuesday and Surmiran, a Romansch dialect, on Thursday. The rest of the week, the kids alternate between the two, but in the playground, the German dialect Bündnerdeutsch rules. On Sundays, they may attend the Catholic church, where the priest preaches in Schwyzerdütsch, or the Protestant one, where High German is the order of the day.Bivio's days as a curiosity may be numbered, though; Swiss German is becoming increasingly dominant, and the primary school will start teaching English in 2012.
Two German engineers has found a way around the EU's ban on incandescent lightbulbs: by selling them as "heatballs", heating devices which just happen to emit light:
Rotthaeuser studied EU legislation and realised that because the inefficient old bulbs produce more warmth than light -- he calculated heat makes up 95 percent of their output, and light just 5 percent -- they could be sold legally as heaters.
On their website, the two engineers describe the heatballs as "action art" and as "resistance against legislation which is implemented without recourse to democratic and parliamentary processes."There is a market there; a small demographic of people who prefer incandescent lightbulbs and another one of people willing to spend money for the joy of spiting the leftists, greens and other politically-correct do-gooders.
Today, a Deutsche Bahn ICE3 high-speed train made an appearance at London's St. Pancras International. The train had been towed into the tunnel the previous night and used in an evacuation exercise, where some 300 volunteers (mostly British and German students) successfully evacuated it in four minutes. (Article with more details, in German.) From there it was towed along the high speed line (the train type does not yet have regulatory approval to run under its own power in Britain) and parked at St. Pancras for display. It was behind glass, in the secure area, and while journalists and VIPs (including, apparently, The Man In Seat 61) were shown around, the general public had to content themselves with viewing it through the glass wall, the train's red LED destination board tantalisingly scrolling destinations including Amsterdam, Cologne and Frankfurt.
Deutsche Bahn plan to start services through the tunnel in December 2013; that is apparently how long it'll take to get regulatory issues sorted out and a fleet of trains prepared. The service will run towards Brussels, where trains will split, with one half going up to Amsterdam via Rotterdam, and the other half going eastwards to Frankfurt. It'll be interesting to see whether this results in cheaper rail fares through the tunnel.
Sometime around the 17th and 18th centuries, in Europe, the rate of homicide dropped sharply; before then, violent death was a lot more common than afterward. Historians are still discussing why this may have happened:
''In the 14th century people are concerned with whether someone is of good or ill repute; it's a collective, community judgment. When you get into the 15th century, the question is about someone's 'governance.' There is a shift from community reputation to an emphasis on internal control.'' A proliferation of tracts and manuals on proper behavior trickle down to common, illiterate folks in the form of rhymes and ditties.One theory is that that the decline in resolving matters of honour through violent means was a result of the rising power of monarchs and states, and the ability of the state to enforce its laws more uniformly, removing the impetus for communities to take matters into their own hands. Others claim cultural shifts for the change:
Mr. Muir describes how the Republic of Venice tried to put an end to violent feuding among unruly nobles as it extended its influence into remote rural areas in the 17th century. The wars fought over generations by the area's leading families left the region vulnerable to foreign invasion. Venice reacted by first meting out stiff punishment, then by drawing the rural noble families into Venetian aristocratic life. Here they learned to replace the clan feud with the individual duel, an important shift from collective violence to individual responsibility and violence. Finally, the feuding clans, who now prided themselves on their courtly behavior, fought it out through the publication of dueling pamphlets, trying to best their rivals through elegant put-downs and masterly argument.
''Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation put a lot of emphasis on individual conscience,'' said Tom Cohen, who teaches history at York University in Toronto. ''The conscience becomes the internal gyroscope. There is the growth of introspection -- the diary, the novel, the personal essay. Along with the kind of personal self-control that Norbert Elias describes.''
Conversely, Mr. Roth noted, one sees significant increases in violence at times of political tension when the legitimacy of government is under serious attack, before and after the Civil War, as well as after World War I in Europe. The fact that murder rates did not go down in Italy and Greece until the 19th centuries, when each country won its political independence and formed a modern national state, suggests that the decline may have had more to do with state formation than with the trickling down of court culture.
This just in: as of this weekend, World War 1 is officially over, with Germany having paid the final, £59.5m instalment of reparations to France and Belgium.
A new quality-of-life survey has named the UK and Ireland the worst places to live in Europe, due to long working hours and high costs.
The UK has the 4th highest age – 63.1 – at which people choose or can afford to take retirement, and one of the lowest holiday entitlements. Net household income in the UK is just £2,314 above the European average, compared with £10,000 above average last year, falling behind Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark.
UK workers enjoy a week less holiday than the European average and three weeks less than the Spanish, while the UK's spend (as a percentage of GDP) on health and education is below the European average and UK food and diesel prices are the highest in Europe. Unleaded petrol, electricity, alcohol and cigarettes all cost more than the average across the continent.("Europe" presumably means the EU; I imagine that, for example, the people of Transnistria would have somewhat more to complain about than a miserly four weeks of leave a year and high prices at the supermarket.)
The best place to live in Europe is right across the Channel, in France.
A direct channel tunnel rail service from London to Germany is looking one step closer: on the 19th of October, Deutsche Bahn will drive a test train through the tunnel, and into London St. Pancras. The train, one of DB's ICE3 high-speed trains, won't be carrying passengers; it will be participating in a safety exercise in the Tunnel, part of stringent tests which will need to be completed before such a service can be approved, and then being exhibited at St. Pancras in a publicity exercise.
There are a lot of tests which need to be undertaken, especially for trains which were not designed specifically with the tunnel in mind (as the Eurostar fleet were). However, if all goes well, Deutsche Bahn are expecting to run a service from London to Frankfurt, via Brussels and Cologne, from the end of 2013. The service is is expected to take 4-5 hours between the two financial capitals, about the same time as London to Edinburgh; while conventional wisdom says that rail is not competitive against air travel for journeys longer than four hours, this may no longer be the case, thanks partly to longer air check-ins and tighter security restrictions, and partly to Deutsche Bahn's exceedingly comfortable trains, or so Mark Smith (of The Man In Seat 61 claims):
A direct train could cut London-Cologne to 3 hrs 55 mins. This would compete with air not only on speed and convenience, but on comfort – DB's ICE trains are among the most comfortable trains in the world, being designed to tempt German businessmen out of their BMWs and Mercedes, with power sockets for laptops at every seat and WiFi on many routes. And using DB's current ICE fares to neighbouring countries as a guide, I'd expect a London-Cologne or London-Frankfurt journey on any new service to start at a very affordable €49 (£41) or even €39 each way, with no need to pay to get add the cost of getting to and from airports.I'm not convinced it'd be that cheap; the tunnel, after all, is a privately-run monopoly, with steep access fees, which would be factored into the ticket prices, though I imagine that it might well end up cannibalising the air travel market between London and Frankfurt (at least for scheduled flights; high-powered businessmen with private jets would presumably keep those), much as Eurostar did to air routes between London and Paris and Brussels.
25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, a wildlife census in the Chernobyl exclusion zone has shown mammals in decline in the area, puncturing the myth of the zone as an involuntary park, where happy mutants can thrive unmolested by humans. Meanwhile, Germany is overrun with radioactive boar, with the German government shelling out hundreds of thousands of euros in compensation to hunters.
An interesting piece by Financial Times writer Simon Kuper on the cultural impact of Eurostar; how the cross-channel train service between London and Paris (Brussels doesn't rate a mention) has transformed the cultures of both cities; before, things used to be much different:
Until the 1990s, To Britons Paris seemed almost as exotic as Jakarta, and more so than Sydney or San Francisco. There was that famous smell of the French Métro, the mix of perfume and Gauloises cigarettes. There was the bizarre sight of people drinking wine on pavements. There was all that philosophy. The exoticism of Paris became such a staple of English-language writing that comedians began to parody it. “I come upon a man at an outdoor café,” writes Woody Allen. “It is André Malraux. Oddly, he thinks that I am André Malraux.”
Those first trains connected two fairly insular cities. I had returned to Britain from Boston the summer before the Eurostar was launched, and after the Technicolor US, I was shocked by dingy London. Tired people in grey clothes waited eternities on packed platforms for 1950s Tube trains. Coffee was an exotic drink that barely existed, like ambrosia. Having a meal outside was illegal. The city centre was uninhabited, and closed at 11pm anyway. Air travel was heavily regulated, and so flying to Paris was expensive. Going by ferry took a whole miserable day. If you did get across, and only spoke the bad French most of us learnt at school, it was hard to communicate with any natives.Now, London and Paris have converged somewhat; London has shaken off some of its Anglo-Saxon austerity and embraced a more Continental lifestyle, with outdoor bdining, late-closing bars and gourmet food markets, and even got a taste for French-style grands projets, not least of all St. Pancras International, the Eurostar terminus. (As for coffee, I can only imagine that, before 1994 or so, anyone requesting coffee rather than tea would be met with a mug of Nescafé Blend 43 or similar.) Meanwhile, Paris has shed some of its Gallic hauteur and become more London-like:
But with the inventions of the internet and Eurostar, and globalisation in general, many Parisians began to see that there was a wonderful new life to be seized if you spoke English. Paris could choose to become an inhabited museum, a sort of chilly Rome, but if it wanted to remain in touch with the latest ideas, the Parisian establishment would have to learn English. By and large, the younger members did. The canard that Parisians refuse to speak English is a decade out of date. As I write, every car on the street outside my office is festooned with a flyer for English lessons for children. Parisian parents are now so keen to induct their toddlers into the global language that speaking English has become a weapon for us Anglophone parents in the battle for a spot in a crèche.Of course, some differences remain (French children are apparently quieter and cleaner than the mowfy brats of Britain, while Britons dress more colourfully, in "weird youth-culture outfits"), but they're becoming less distinct, as more people commute or travel between the two cities. (London is apparently now, by population, the sixth-largest French city.)
Kuper goes on to describe a bright future for western Europe, largely due to its compact geography, further amplified by the promise of high-speed rail. Indeed, shiny, aerodynamic high-speed trains seem to be the unchallenged future of travel, with air travel, that darling of the 1990s, looking a bit shabby, between rising oil prices, the Long Siege and things like the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud.
Greece's economic crisis has highlighted the fact that the Greek taxation system leaks like a sieve, with tax evasion being almost a point of honour. Now, under pressure from the northern European economies paying to bail them out, the Greek tax authorities are uncovering the depth of the problem:
In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools. So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area — a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates — and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools.
Various studies have concluded that Greece’s shadow economy represented 20 to 30 percent of its gross domestic product. Friedrich Schneider, the chairman of the economics department at Johannes Kepler University of Linz, studies Europe’s shadow economies; he said that Greece’s was at 25 percent last year and estimated that it would rise to 25.2 percent in 2010. For comparison, the United States’ was put at 7.8 percent.The Greek government has introduced laws stepping up tax enforcement and eliminating loopholes; whether they're strong enough to survive the entrenched culture of bribery in Greece remains to be seen.
(via Boing Boing)
As Greece's economic problems raise fears of a possible collapse of the Euro, or even the end of the ambitious single currency, financial commentators are already publishing advice on how to profit from it:
Two: Buy the US dollar. Sure, it has its own problems. The US budget and trade deficits are huge. Wall Street is under attack from populist, crusading politicians. Its share of the global economy is in long-term decline. But with the euro gone, it would be the only serious reserve currency - at least until China decides to take on that role. Without any competition, the dollar would only strengthen.
Seven: Buy airlines. For a few years, the “new drachma” would make the Iraqi dinar look like a haven of stability. It would plunge, and wealthy northern Europeans would be taking three or four holidays a year on Greek islands. That would be great for the companies that fly tourists there. Add in the weakness of the new Portuguese escudo, Spanish peseta and Italian lira, and the guys at Airbus will be working nightshifts to keep up with the demand for new planes to get everyone to the beaches.Other advice is to buy into German bonds, the pound (though what about other non-Eurozone currencies such as the various Scandinavian ones?) and Italian shares (Italy's apparently likely to prosper in a post-Euro world), whilst avoiding Spanish banking shares and anything to do with Belgium (in a post-Euro world, it's merely "a small place where you can buy some nice chocolate and change trains").
The Economist rationalises the "outdated and illogical" map of Europe:
Belgium’s incomprehensible Flemish-French language squabbles (which have just brought down a government) are redolent of central Europe at its worst, especially the nonsenses Slovakia thinks up for its Hungarian-speaking ethnic minority. So Belgium should swap places with the Czech Republic. The stolid, well-organised Czechs would get on splendidly with their new Dutch neighbours, and vice versa.
Germany can stay where it is, as can France. But Austria could shift westwards into Switzerland’s place, making room for Slovenia and Croatia to move north-west too.* They could join northern Italy in a new regional alliance (ideally it would run by a Doge, from Venice). The rest of Italy, from Rome downwards, would separate and join with Sicily to form a new country, officially called the Kingdom of Two Sicilies (but nicknamed Bordello). It could form a currency union with Greece, but nobody else.
A week ago, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull started erupting, spewing a vast cloud of glassy ash into the stratosphere, and imposing a total no-fly zone on most of Europe. Now, flights are beginning to reopen (though by no means across the board; the flight your humble correspondent was scheduled to be on this afternoon, from Gothenburg to Heathrow, remains cancelled); scientists, however, say that the volcano is likely to keep erupting for some time, and some say that we can expect decades of increased volcanic activity in Iceland, meaning that there may be more flight disruptions to come.
This has had somewhat more of a personal impact on me than most things in this blog; on the day I was due to fly out to Copenhagen (for the Copenhagen Popfest), I woke to find that all flights were cancelled. After a few hours of incredulous reload-clicking, I booked expensive trains to Cologne (this was in the early hours of the disruption, before Eurostar was booked out for days to come); the following day, I caught a Eurostar to Brussels and a Thalys train to Cologne (there were no seats available on it; I spent the journey propped up in the dining car, somewhat closer to a hyperactive, tantrum-throwing toddler than I would have liked). I had been unable to book onward trains from London, but was advised to try the ticket office in Cologne; there, I was advised that the sleeper train was booked out, and that my best chance was to board it and bet on buying a ticket onboard. I did so, and somehow managed to end up in Copenhagen the following morning.
Right now, I'm in Paris, staying at a friend's place before making the journey back to Blighty; I made the decision to not go to Gothenburg (even further from London, since competition from Ryanair killed the ferry to Newcastle; let's hope that it gets reinstated soon), and caught a ride with a friend to Brussels. (Note to self: next time you're likely to be in a car on the Autobahn, bring some CDs of Kraftwerk and Neu! to put on.)
(It's somewhat ironic that a year ago, I holidayed in Iceland, and now, Iceland disrupted my holiday.)
For those stuck on the wrong side of the English Channel, there are ways across; it's true that the Eurostar's booked solid for days (and expensive to boot), as are coach services and the Calais ferry, but last time I checked, the Caen-Portsmouth ferry still had seats available.
Let's hope that this leads to some more redundancy in modes of transport in Europe; the continent has sacrificed a lot of (slower) modes of surface transport for the speed of air travel. (The lost ferry routes are one casualty; meanwhile, Britain has run its railways down, accepting the free-market wisdom that it makes more sense to fly from, say, London to Edinburgh than to spend four and a half hours on a train), which has left its transport systems dependent on one modality and, as we have seen, fragile. The results can be seen in the desperate queues of people at railway stations and the escalating credit-card bills of those involuntarily extending their hotel stays.
Finally, here is a Christopher Hitchens piece on the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and Iceland in general.
The BNP has announced that it is forming an alliance in the EU with other nationalist parties. The European Alliance of National Movements will include the likes of France's National Front and the Hungarian neofascist group JOBBIK, though has fallen short of being an EU-recognised formal political grouping, mostly because the Tories' "European Conservatives and Reformers" group has cherry-picked most of the far right MEPs.
Anyway, I give them six months before the whole thing implodes with members accusing each other of being racially inferior and/or subhuman.
The Gini coefficient is a number from 0 to 1 representing the equality or inequality of income distribution in an economy; 0 is theoretical absolute equality, and 1 is one person having everything and everyone going without. In practice, it varies from about 0.2 to about 0.7.
According to it, Europe ranges from the mid-.20s to the high .30s, with a few outliers in the low 40s. At the most egalitarian end, unsurprisingly, are the Jante states of Denmark and Sweden, as well as Iceland (perhaps surprisingly, if it's meant to have been an experiment in cut-throat neoliberalism). Things get more inequitous into Norway, Finland, France, Germany and Switzerland (which stays under .28, despite being home to a lot of the global super-rich), and then on to Italy, Spain, Britain and Ireland, and beyond that, Poland and Lithuania. The most unequal country in Europe is Turkey, which has a Gini coefficient of 0.436, somewhere between Guyana and Nigeria, or, if you prefer, Delaware and Hawaii.
The United States is, unsurprisingly, a lot less egalitarian in income than Europe. American states' Gini coefficients range from 0.41 (the solidly Mormon state of Utah, whose state emblem is the beehive, has a Gini coefficient equivalent to Russia's) to a whopping 0.537 in the District of Columbia (comparable to the Honduras). Other states are twinned with parts of the developing world; Alabama and Mississippi are most like Nepal, California has the income distribution of Rwanda, and New York, barely under the .5 mark, is twinned with Costa Rica. According to the article, this is an astonishing state of affairs for a developed country:
According the the CIA World Factbook (table compiled here), the lowest Gini score in the world is Sweden's, at .23, followed by Denmark and Slovenia at .24. The next 20 countries are all in either Western Europe or the former Communist bloc of Eastern Europe. The EU as a whole is at .307. Russia has the highest number in Europe (.41); Portugal is the highest in Western Europe (.38). Japan is at .381; Australia is .352; Canada is .321.
And then there is the United States, sandwiched between Cote d'Ivoire and Uruguay at .450. Not counting Hong Kong (.523), the US is a complete loner among developed countries. In fact, as you can see from the map above, there is no overlap between any single US state and any other developed country; no state is within the normal range of income distribution in the rest of the developed world. Here's a list of the states with their Gini index numbers, and the country where income distribution is most comparable in parentheses:Other interesting maps on the site include a map of religious nonbelief in the UK (which points out that Scotland and Northern Ireland are the most religious, and asks whether that correlates to the Scots-Irish roots of the US "Bible belt"), of antidepressant use in England and Wales (summary: it's grim up north, and in Cornwall too; either that or Londoners prefer a line of coke), and one suggesting that, as global warming advances, Australia is ecologically fux0red.
France's National Assembly may soon have representatives for foreign locales with large French populations, such as London, as well as Germany, Switzerland, the USA and the Middle East. The plan was floated by France's right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. The French Socialist Party, however, claims that the move is just a gerrymander, and that studies show that French expatriates lean politically to the right.
It will be interesting to see if any other countries follow this idea. I imagine the Australian parliament could create a few electorates that way (one in London and one in Dubai, at least, with perhaps smaller seats representing agglomerations of Berlin, Tokyo and so on). If one thinks cynically of the gerrymandering aspect of this, it could profit the US Democrats to try this, given the fabled liberal leanings of Americans with passports.
European police have called off their hunt for a master criminal, a woman of Eastern European origin linked by DNA to numerous crimes from murders and carjackings to burglaries of varying levels of competence, after it was found that the DNA belonged to a worker at the factory making cotton swabs used by police forces across Europe. Oops!
(via Boing Boing)
The Times' travel section has another crop of stories about rail travel; this time around, they include a piece on the spectacular Settle-Carlisle line, one on traversing provincial Japan by slow train, a piece on crossing the USA by train (from New York to Chicago and then Los Angeles) a piece on crossing the USA by train, and Mark (the man in Seat 61) Smith's list of four great European rail journeys.
Iceland may join the EU by 2011. The once fiercely independent Iceland had in the past rejected the idea of surrendering its independence, though with its economy bankrupt, it may have no choice; meanwhile, the EU's senior diplomats, as well as the Czech and Swedish governments (who hold the current and next EU presidencies) are in favour of Iceland joining, and preparing to accelerate its accession. Of course, not everyone's keen on this; Iceland's fishing industry, for example, doesn't look forward to sharing its national waters with fleets from across the EU.
There is also talk of Iceland adopting the euro, and abandoning its distinctive krona coins (which, instead of heads of state, historical figures or monuments, have fish on them), though this will take longer because of constraints on membership of the euro.
An Europe-wide study has shown that, of all the countries in Europe, Britain has the lowest levels of "trust and belonging" amongst under-50s.
The ESS tries to measure trust and belonging by comparing answers to questions such as these:
- Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can't be too careful in dealing with people?
- Do you think that most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance, or would they try to be fair?
- Would you say that most of the time people try to be helpful or that they are mostly looking out for themselves?
The researchers suggest that our low "trust and belonging" score may be "the result of the development of a highly individualistic culture in the UK". Basically, the suggestion is that we are in danger of becoming the most selfish nation in Europe.That's one explanation, that the low level of trust is symptomatic of Thatcherite-Blairite Hobbesian anglocapitalist values, where man is expected to be wolf to man (after all, were this not the case, that would be grossly inefficient and uncompetitive). Other factors could include greater geographical mobility (a society of immigrants, expatriates and the global superrich would be less cohesive than a tightly-knit local society). Interestingly enough, the countries with the highest level of trust and belonging in Europe appear to be Denmark and Norway (Sweden, it seems, has pulled away towards high-Gini competitive individualism, undoubtedly buoyed by the success of Ikea, H&M and a dozen supercool indie-folk and fashion-electro bands); could this be a reflection of the vaunted Scandinavian egalitarianism and/or the internalised repression of individualism of the Jante Law, or just of more homogeneous societies?
Good news for British traditionalists today; the EU has abandoned its effort to make Britain go metric. Britain had been given an exemption from the requirement to standardise on metric measurements in 1995, though this was due to expire this year, with miles and pints to be banished from view. Though, with a fierce display of tutting, the Daily Mail-reading little-Englanders gave Johnny Foreigner what for, and he fled with his tail between his legs, leaving Britain to its ancient systems of measurement in perpetuity.
Those aghast at the surrender of modernity to tradition for its own sake, though, need not despair; the law still requires metric measurements to be displayed alongside the traditional ones, and the traditional measurements are defined in terms of the metric ones (a pint, for example, is legally set at 568ml; cursory inspection of a pint glass at any pub will demonstrate this).
Another British tradition, however, was not so lucky; the EU has voted to abolish Britain's right to opt out of the EU's maximum working-hour limits. The Tories, employer groups and the New Labour nomenklatura are, of course, outraged (though the Labour rank and file are, by all accounts, quite pleased), predicting a collapse of productivity and the surrender of the Calvinist work ethic that made Britain great. However, given that the maximum EU working limits prescribe a 48-hour week, averaged over some nine weeks, this doesn't hold water, unless one is running a Dickensian sweatshop.
Finally, the pound's value has recently plummeted, to the point where a pound is rapidly approaching one euro. Which has caused some commentators to suggest that maybe Britain joining the euro is not such a bad idea. Which may be the case; certainly, the traditionalist argument for retaining the pound doesn't hold much water, given that the modern decimal pound is a dollar/euro-style decimal currency which replaced the ancient pound in 1971; the difference between it and, say, the Australian dollar (another currency hewn from pounds, shillings and pence at about the same time) is that Britain decided to name its new currency after the old one. Britain joining the euro would make things easier for those travelling to/from or trading with continental Europe (or, indeed, Ireland). The question which has most bearing on the pros and cons of the euro is whether Britain's monetary policy being fixed to the Eurozone would help or harm the British economy; this is a question I'm not qualified to answer.
A while ago, German national railway company Deutsche Bahn expressed an interest in running trains through the Channel Tunnel, competing with Eurostar, come 2010, when EU "open access" rules allow train companies to run services all over the EU. Now they're talking about buying out the UK's share of Eurostar altogether:
Deutsche Bahn (DB), Germany’s state-owned railway, may also use Eurostar trains to operate a rival service through the Channel Tunnel, with competition resulting in cheaper tickets to Paris and Brussels. But the Government, which is preparing to sell the third of Eurostar that it controls, would lose the ability to influence the development of the rail link to the Continent.
Over the past 18 months, it has quietly bought several British train companies that carry a total of 30 million passengers a year. DB owns Chiltern, which runs between London Marylebone and Birmingham, and half of London Overground, which operates on the North London Line and will serve the extended East London Line from next year. It also runs two thirds of Britain’s goods trains through its purchase of EWS, the biggest British rail freight company.
DB hopes to persuade Geoff Hoon, the Transport Secretary, that it will operate a more efficient service through the Channel Tunnel by drawing on its experience in Germany of integrating trains with other modes of transport. German rail passengers can book an entire journey on just one web-site and with one ticket and can even arrange for an electrically assisted bicycle to be waiting for them at the station.DB have also expressed an interest in buying more train companies in countries they expand to; given their efficiency, that could be a good thing.
Having invaded Georgia and crushed its military, a newly emboldened Russia has told the West that it can forget about Georgia's territorial integrity, and the Russian-speaking enclaves in the country won't be returned to Georgian sovereignty. And short of provoking a nuclear stand-off, there is little the West is likely to be able to do about it.
If (as is likely), Russia gets away with slicing bits out of Georgia, I wonder who will be next in its sights. Ukraine, which is looking towards joining the EU and NATO, is one candidate, though pro-Western tendencies there may be checked merely by supporting pro-Russian parties and threatening to turn off the gas. And Poland, which recently signed a deal with the US to host missile interceptors (designed, ostensibly, against Iranian rogue nukes, though it's likely that a rising China is the real motivation), drawing threats of military strike from Russian commanders, can't be sitting too comfortably. Though in my (entirely amateur) opinion, the Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—may have the most to worry about.
Consider the following: The Baltic states are a thin panhandle, connected to the EU by a narrow border. They are the only part of the EU to have recently been part of the Soviet Union, and thanks to Stalin's population transfer programmes, have a substantial ethnic Russian minority, many of whom resent being coerced into learning the local language (after decades of Russian being the official language of government); reports of discrimination are common. Furthermore, there is the question of Kaliningrad, a Russian territory which is cut off from mainland Russia by Poland and Lithuania; for a resurgent regional power, this must be a terrible loss of face. An invasion of Lithuania, prompted by the prerogative to defend Russian-speaking minorities and resulting in a land corridor being carved out to Kaliningrad (and the Baltic states being conveniently isolated by land from the EU proper) could look tempting now.
Of course, as the Baltic states are NATO members, such an incident would be likely to trigger a war between Russia and NATO in its entirety (which, of course, includes the US, an even more powerful superpower). Though Russia might calculate that, with the US and other allies being overstretched and worn down in the Middle East, they may be somewhat weakened.
A few interesting engineering-related developments in the news today:
- There is a proposal to provide most or all of Europe's energy needs with solar collector farms in the Sahara, slashing the continent's carbon emissions dramatically.
- England's parliament has approved the Crossrail rail scheme; from 2017—in nine short years—London will have a fast east-west underground rail link, sort of like Paris's RER, going from Paddington, under Tottenham Court Road and Farringdon, and hitting Stratford and Canary Wharf.
The Graun takes Woody Allen to task for being not as good as everyone has been led to believe.
To those of us who have watched Allen's two-decade decline into that cataleptic Eric Claptonesque state where an artist is revered as a god, but not by anyone who originally worshipped in his church, Allen's Grand Tour of Europe is baffling. I have seen Match Point three times now and simply cannot keep a straight face during Allen's perplexing and in many ways offensive attempt to make a Mike Leigh movie. The film is ostensibly about class: a penniless Irish ex-tennis star (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) is determined to rise above his station by reading Dostoyevsky, attending La Traviata and Damien Hirst exhibits and marrying Emily Mortimer.
Unfortunately, Allen gets it all wrong: when you shoot a Mike Leigh movie, you aren't supposed to make Mummy and Papa and their grouse-shooting twit progeny the heroes. And when you repeatedly show Mummy and Papa and Twitty and Tweedledum at Covent Garden going into raptures over Verdi, you can't then have Mortimer salivating at the prospect of attending Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White. It makes you look like an idiot. Here, as in so many other Allen films, art, music and literature serve a phony, ornamental function; you never really believe that any of his characters actually enjoy abstract art or have read Aristophanes. It's just an excuse for the college drop-out Allen to show off. "Look, Mom! I know who Modigliani is! See, I can pronounce the word 'Proust'." Match Point is like a dozen other Woody Allen movies: Low-Fat High Culture, Bergman for Beginners.The article (by an American commentator, who points out that the perpetuation of Allen's career is one thing Europe, not America, must take the blame for) points to Allen's habit of casting himself alongside attractive young actresses (though, to his credit, he has given up on putting himself in love scenes with them) and, noting that Allen seems to have moved on from London to Barcelona after his last two London flicks (the most recent being a gangster/geezer criminalogue titled Cassandra's Dream; no, I haven't heard of it either) flopped, speculates on where he'll go after he wears out his welcome with the Spanish:
I can see a Zagreb-based Woody Allen film where the director plays a washed-up Serb stand-up comic whose career is suddenly revived by meeting a perky Bosnian-American exchange student played by Thandie Newton. I can see a Polish Woody Allen film about a washed-up klezmer player whose career is revived by a chance encounter with a Santa Cruz forensic scientist (Tina Fey) investigating Chopin's suspicious death. I can see a Macedonian film about a social-climbing rag merchant who keeps getting visits from a ghost who claims to be Alexander the Great, but is actually a delusional Second Avenue deli counter man named Herbie Schlegel.
I can see movies with names like Fulvio's Inamorata, Anne-Laure et Ses Tantes Amusantes, The Caper Was in Copenhagen, the Kapers in Kiev and Trust Me, Mahmoud, I Can Get It for You Wholesale! I can see the sultry, maladroit, pointless Johansson cast as Mata Hari, Marlene Dietrich, the Empress Dowager, Helen of Troy, Judy Garland and Boudica's long-lost twin sister, Vicki. I can see Allen casting himself opposite Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, Audrey Tautou and three dozen as-yet unborn children.
Two years ago, I caught a sleeper train from Paris to Zurich. Not intentionally, mind you, but entirely by chance.
I had originally intended to travel from Paris to Florence by sleeper train, departing from the Gare de Bercy a whisker after 7pm, and to this effect, had booked a seat on the Eurostar arriving at the Gare du Nord just before 5:30pm. This, in theory, would have given me ample time to make my leisurely way through the Paris Métro, possibly grabbing a bite to eat, before boarding my train. In reality, it turned out that the Channel Tunnel wasn't feeling well that afternoon, and the Eurostar spent some 80 minutes waiting in the Kentish countryside, consequently arriving in Paris just before 7. A mad dash in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English ("Parlez-vous Anglais?", I enquired on entering the cab; the driver reply, buttered with no small amount of self-satisfaction, was, "Parle Français.") resulted in my arriving at Gare de Bercy (a good 5km away) some ten minutes after the Florence train's departure.
Facing the prospect of spending a night in a hotel room, I inquired at the ticket office about subsequent trains. Luckily, there was a sleeper train to Zurich (or, more precisely, to Chur via Zurich), and thence I could catch a train to Milan the following morning, putting me on the way toward Florence, at the cost of only around £90 and some eight hours of time. This, however, turned out to be well worth it, as the scenery along the Zurich-Milan route was spectacular. The morning's train wound past silvery alpine lakes fringed with small, white houses and corkscrewed its way up mountains to St. Gotthard's Pass, before entering a tunnel. On the other side, everything was different: the climate, the architecture, even the language. We had left the German-speaking part of Switzerland and entered the Italian-speaking part, a somewhat sunnier, though still impeccably well-organised, place. The train headed south, then stopped for some time at the border as border guards boarded to check our passports. Then it proceeded southward, past Lake Como, and towards Milan. From Milan, I made my own way south.
I had been planning to take this journey again at some point, the next time actually breaking it in the Swiss Alps; getting off the train somewhere around, say, Arth-Goldau or so, and spending a day or two there, in alpine tranquility. Though, when I recently looked at seat61.com, I found that that is no longer possible, having fallen victim to the onward march of progress:
The convenient direct sleeper train from Paris to Landquart & Chur was sadly withdrawn with the opening of the TGV-Est high-speed line in June 2007I wonder how many other sleeper train services have disappeared over recent years, squeezed by the boorish onslaught of cheap flights on one hand and the march of high-speed rail on the other, and whether this is a one-way process, or whether there are any new overnight services being introduced as old ones are dropped. One would think that they could run some through the Channel Tunnel at night. (Perhaps if Deutsche Bahn get rights to run services through the tunnel from 2010, as they have applied to do, they will put some in. After all, Germany is considerably further from London than Paris or Brussels, and an overnight train from London to Berlin, the showpiece rail hub of central Europe, could be popular. And then there were the overnight services from the north of Britain to Paris that were mooted when the tunnel was being built and flights were relatively expensive.)
Naming things, it seems, remains political: Danish academics have acused Ikea of cultural imperialism, for giving Danish placenames to its cheaper products, whilst reserving Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian ones for the more prestigious items:
The researchers claim to have discovered a pattern where more expensive items, such as beds and chairs, have been named after Swedish, Finnish and Norwegian towns whereas doormats, draught excluders and runners are named after Danish places.
Mr Kjöller analysed the Ikea catalogue with a colleague at the University of Southern Denmark. He said it "symbolically portrays Denmark as the doormat of Sweden, a country with a larger economy and population".
At the stroke of midnight last night, nine new countries joined the Schengen Zone, the area in Europe without any internal borders. The zone now extends well into eastern Europe, encompassing the former Eastern bloc nations and ex-Soviet Baltic states which joined the EU in 2004, and going right up to borders with Russia and the Ukraine.
The other side of this has been a fortification of the Schengen zone's new easternmost frontier, with intensive patrols and high-tech sensors being deployed to prevent illegal immigration from (or through) their eastern neighbours.
With the completion of the new high-speed rail corridor for Eurostar, Britain has finally joined the European fast rail party. Or, more precisely, the south east of England has, as the rest of the country stares forlornly at the Eurostar passing it by and/or books another Ryanair flight:
This marks a kind of betrayal. When, 21 years ago, François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher signed an agreement to build a rail tunnel between the UK and France, the benefits for South-east England were to be shared with the rest of Britain by virtue of a range of regional services. Plymouth would enjoy an overnight link with Brussels, while travellers from Cardiff could catch a train direct to Paris.
Over the years, this pretence was maintained at vast expense: rolling stock for Eurostar Regional was built; a catering shed was constructed at Manchester Piccadilly; and timetables at Edinburgh Waverley showed the schedules for a couple of seasons.
The result of this development will be clearer later this month, when the new high-speed Eurostar train service beds in. After an encouraging (but very brief) northbound start, it will swerve east, cross the East Coast main line and disappear into a hole in the ground. This, the "London Tunnel" , emerges 11 miles later in the Labour-voting wastes of southern Essex – an eccentric route reached following a political decision by the last Conservative government, keen to avoid upsetting the voters in key Kentish constituencies.The new link—dubbed, perhaps optimistically, "High Speed 1"—will allow trains to travel between London and the Channel Tunnel at 186mph (or 300km/h, if you're European), bringing the Continent a lot closer (the French port of Calais is now just under one hour out of London, which would (passports and ticket costs notwithstanding) place it within London's commuter belt). Once you're at Brussels-Midi, Europe's existing high-speed rail network (funded by wasteful Eurosocialist largesse in place of the British penny-pinching that's efficiently packing commuters in like sardines as it squeezes the last bit of utility out of the nation's creaking railway infrastructure) will take care of the rest. And as Europe gets closer, destinations in Britain get relatively more distant:
With trains to Brussels taking only 111 minutes, Norwich, Cardiff and Exeter share the ignominy of longer journey times. While the fastest trains to Leeds and Manchester narrowly beat those to Paris, the cities of Sheffield and Liverpool take longer to reach than the French capital.
Hull will suffer the ignominy of taking exactly the same length of time to reach from St Pancras as Disneyland Paris (and being considerably less fun when you get there).
Two locations are tantalisingly just three minutes over 10 hours away: Fort William in the West Highlands of Scotland, and Berlin. Given the investment pouring into rail at the heart of Europe, Germany's capital will beat the 10-hour barrier well before the western end of the Caledonian Canal – which relies on rail infrastructure almost as old as the inland waterway.The article concludes with a list of the "20 top new rail destinations" on the Continent, each with an equivalent UK trip; Brussels is twinned with Bristol, Lyon with Glasgow, and Cologne (in the German hinterland) with Aberystwyth. The French Riviera is now officially closer than the Welsh Riviera.
There are vague noises about linking London to Birmingham by high-speed rail (that's the European definition of "high-speed", not the feeble local substitute). As for anywhere further north; forget it. It's unlikely that anyone living today will see a 300km/h rail link between London and Scotland (one such idea was floated a while ago, before being scrapped in favour of the more "sensible" alternative of making do with what we have). Then again, maybe if the oil crash really bites and cheap flights evaporate, priorities will shift somewhat.
Another unanticipated consequence of the shift in effective distances may be an undermining of Britain's traditionally isolationist outlook. When the north of France is firmly in the London commuter belt and moneyed Londoners start considering making homes there, will they stand for spending an hour each day going through passport control? There could be new pressure to get Britain to sign the Schengen treaty and abolish border controls with the EU. Granted, the counter-pressure from the Daily Mail Little Englanders, with their visions of dirty hordes of disease-carrying paedoterrorist welfare cheats at the inadequately fortified gates, is a pretty solid obstacle, though whether it will be so in a generation's time is an open question. Perhaps the Channel Tunnel will have turned out to be the trojan horse Mitterrand intended it as?
Blog of the day: Mark Mardell's Euroblog, in which a BBC Europe correspondent writes insightful pieces on news stories concerning the EU, such as the prospect of Belgium splitting in two, the clash between Poland and the EU, and the (receding) prospects of a federal "United States of Europe".
After decades of attempting to drag the UK, kicking and screaming, into the metric world, the EU has given up, conceding that the UK may use its peculiar imperial system of measurement indefinitely:
"I want to bring to an end a bitter, bitter battle that has lasted for decades and which in my view is completely pointless. We're bringing this battle to an end."Metric remains an official system of measurement in the UK, much as it is in the US.
After Czechoslovakia's amicable split in the 1990s, and talk of Scotland seeking independence from Britain, now there is talk in Belgium about splitting the country into French- and Dutch-speaking halves:
Another [barrier to separation] is the future of Brussels. The Belgian capital is a bilingual oasis in Flanders and, despite being the seat of the Flemish parliament, has a largely Francophone population. Its role as home to the EU and Nato has led some to suggest that it should become a kind of Brussels DC for Europe. Proposals unveiled this week to consolidate the European Commission estate with an ambitious new building programme have added to suspicions that the capital’s authorities are preparing for such an eventuality.
Talk of separation has ignited interest in France, where a columnist in the newspaper Le Figaro suggested that President Sarkozy should welcome Wallonia as a new province if wealthy Flanders broke away. France, however, has shown no interest in annexing a population of 4 million with 15 per cent unemployment.
"When I went into a coma there was only tea and vinegar in the shops, meat was rationed and huge petrol queues were everywhere," Mr Grzebski said.
"Now I see people on the streets with mobile phones and there are so many goods in the shops it makes my head spin," he told Polish television.
The Spanish and Moroccan governments are talking about building a high-speed rail tunnel under the Strait of Gibraltar, linking Europe and Africa. If it happens (and that is a big if; the entire endeavour would cost about US$13 billion and cost 20 years to construct), it would make it possible to travel from one continent to another by rail.
How far down through Africa railways could extend is another matter; I imagine a London-Johannesburg rail link would be pushing it.
The Scottish parliamentary election is due in just over a month, and the Scottish Nationalist Party looks set to take the lead, with Labour being decimated:
Opinion polls show the SNP could take up to 51 of the 129 places in the devolved parliament, up from 25 seats at present, leaving Labour trailing with as few as 40 seats, losing 20% of its strength at Holyrood. That result would put the nationalists in a dominant position and the most likely party to form a ruling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, just before Gordon Brown, a Scottish MP, is expected to become prime minister in London.A SNP-led government would make things interesting, as one of their policies is to hold a referendum on ending Scotland's union with England, a union which began 300 years ago. Could we see Scotland joining the EU as a separate nation, with a similar status to Ireland (outside of the Schengen treaty, but with no border controls with England)? If so, would an independent Scotland be likely to dump the pound for the euro?
As part of an ambitious plan to divert all cross-country freight onto the railways, the Swiss are digging a railway tunnel under the Alps. The tunnel, which (at 57 kilometres) will be the world's longest, will form part of a new, faster railway link between Zurich and Milan, and make crossing the Alps quicker and easier than it has ever been:
A key feature of the project, which is new to alpine transport, is the fact that the entire railway line will stay at the same altitude of 500 metres (1,650ft) above sea level.
This will allow trains using the line to reach speeds of 240km/h (149mph), reducing the travel time between Zurich and Milan from today's four hours to just two-and-a-half. That would make the journey faster than flying.
Whilst initially intended for freight, the service is expected to carry passenger trains; an underground railway station has been established one kilometer beneath the village of Sedrun, for use in the construction project, and there are plans to turn it into a passenger station, to be known as "Porta Alpina", or "gateway to the Alps":
Tourists will be able to arrive by train in the Alps in record time, and then be whisked up to fresh mountain air by way of the world's longest elevator.On one hand, travelling to the Alps by high-speed train, ascending in a lift and emerging in a tiny Alpine village does sound cool. On the other hand, I had the good fortune to travel from Zurich to Milan by the slow way—the train winding around the sides of silvery lakes, crossing bridges over valleys and corkscrewing its way up the Alps on the German-speaking part, going through a (relatively) short tunnel at St. Gotthard's Pass, and then coming back down on the Italian-speaking part, with its entirely different architecture and vegetation, and that was (as you can undoubtedly imagine) a magnificently scenic journey. A tunnel just wouldn't be the same.
According to a quality-of-life survey by the Economist magazine, Ireland is the world's most livable country:
The Economist said: "Ireland wins because it successfully combines the most desirable elements of the new, such as low unemployment and political liberties, with the preservation of certain cosy elements of the old, such as stable family and community life."Ireland is followed by Switzerland, Norway, Luxembourg and Sweden. Australia is at #6, one place ahead of Iceland and the only non-European country in the top 10; the US is at #13, whereas the UK languishes at the bottom of the pre-expansion EU at #29, a few notches below fellow laggards France and Germany:
The researchers said although the UK achieved high income per head, it had high levels of social and family breakdown.At the very bottom of the list is Zimbabwe; I'm guessing North Korea and Iraq weren't included.
As Britain struggles to adopt a "Mediterranean drinking culture" not involving binge drinking and public disorder, across the channel, an equally radical cultural change is being planned. France will ban smoking in all public places from February. Which does seem like a drastic change for a country like France, famed for its strongly aromatic cigarettes and prevalence of public smoking (it is the only country in which I have seen a police officer throw his cigarette on the ground as he entered the police station), though apparently 70% of the population support the ban. And let's not forget that the first European country to ban public smoking was Ireland, also known for its tobacco culture.
25 years ago this Friday, France opened its first TGV train line, from Paris and Lyons. The arrival of the high-speed train lines (which now run at up to 320km/h, nearly twice as fast as the fastest train in Britain) has profoundly changed the psychogeography of France, effectively shrinking the country to a more conveniently traversable size:
The 1,250-mile (2,010km) TGV network, a product of the French tradition of centralised power and state engineering, has transformed life, bringing cities such as Tours, 230 miles from Paris, within commuting range. A daily season ticket on that TGV route costs £390 a month. Between Paris and Lille (127 miles each way), daily commuting costs £415 a month. Vendôme, 260 miles to the southwest of the capital, has become a dormitory town. About 400,000 people use the TGV for daily work.
"The TGV is the Concorde plus commercial success," Clive Lamming, a railway historian who wrote the Larousse des trains et des chemins de fer encyclopaedia, told The Times. "The TGV has virtually reduced France to one big suburb. This has increased the independence of businesses from Paris. Workers are more mobile and their costs are less."To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Paris-Lyons TGV line, the SNCF (France's state railway company) is opening the new TGV-Est line from Paris to Strasbourg, which will make the journey in 2 hours and 20 minutes (it is presently 4 hours).
It is unlikely that anything like the TGV will happen in Britain. The technical efficiency of the TGV is a result of the sort of overengineering that happens in systems shielded from the ruthless optimisations of the marketplace. In Britain, however, where the railways are privatised and the maximisation of profits and cutting of expenses is paramount, the system would never be so uneconomical as to invest in dedicated high-speed railway lines which inefficiently lie idle when not being traversed by high-speed trains, rather than being used for goods and short-distance traffic. And then, of course, there is the proud Anglo-Saxon tradition of underinvestment in infrastructure to uphold.
Ninetynine have just posted their upcoming European tour dates. They're playing Finland (13-15 October), Russia (17-19), Iceland (22nd), then a five-day tour of Spain (24th to 28th), and ending the tour with a London date on the 31st.
Their new album, Worlds Of Space, Worlds Of Population, Worlds Of Robots, has just been released in Australia. More details on that when my copy arrives.
The ultra-conservative president of Poland (one half of a set of identical twins running the country (his brother is Prime Minister) and a man so right-wing he makes Tony Abbott look like Bob Brown) has called for the restoration of the death penalty. If anything comes of this, it could lead to an interesting situation, as capital punishment is expressly prohibited in the European Union. Were Poland to reintroduce it, it would leave Brussels with a dilemma: hold to principles and expel one of their populous members, or allow Poland to opt out of the death-penalty ban. If the EU blinks and the latter happens, how long until the Daily Mail and Sun put the reintroduction of capital punishment on the agenda in the UK.
Spain has become the first country to completely outlaw peer-to-peer file sharing. Under the law, downloading files from peer-to-peer networks is in itself a civil offense, whilst ISPs face criminal sanctions for tolerating file sharing (which, presumably, means not blocking it). Oddly enough, the law also puts a tax on all digital media, with the money going to Big Copyright, presumably to reimburse them for all the content the public is absolutely prohibited from sharing on said media.
That sound you can hear is copyright-industry lobbyists in the rest of the world rubbing their hands with glee as they prepare to push for "harmonisation" of the local laws with Spain's.
I'm back in London now, having spent the past five days on the continent, catching the Eurostar to Paris, then travelling via Zürich to Tuscany, staying for a few days in the mediaeval hilltop town of Cetona, then back to Paris via Florence and back to London. Photos from my travels will gradually filter onto Flickr.
- The Eurostar train to Paris was delayed by 80 minutes; it seems that the tunnel wasn't feeling well or something, and the train had to wait outside whilst its handlers coaxed it into cooperating. Consequently, I missed my initial connection, the 19:06 sleeper to Florence, despite a white-knuckle taxi ride through the Parisian rush-hour traffic. The moral of this story: allow more than one hour and 40 minutes between the Eurostar and anything departing from Gare de Bercy.
- I did manage to get a bunk on a later sleeper to Zürich, and a connecting train to Milan. The Zürich train (a French SNCF service) was relatively empty, and even in second class, quite comfortable.
- The Swiss love their sans serif typefaces and clean design, and have some of the best-looking banknotes I have seen. They're about as colourful as Australian banknotes, only with more of a modernist European graphic-design feel.
- The journey through the Swiss Alps from Zürich to Milan is probably the most scenic railway journey I have been on; the train climbs into the alps, winding around hills and going through tunnels, passing vast, mirror-still lakes and small towns. Then it goes through a tunnel near St. Gotthard's Pass, and comes out in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, which has a completely different climate, geography, architecture and character, seeming rather Mediterranean. I have added Switzerland to the list of places to visit.
- Swiss trains are very clean and run like clockwork. Italian trains are generally of a high standard. The "EuroStar Italia" trains (which are similar to French TGVs or Virgin Pendolinos) are fast and come with an onboard magazine (in Italian) and radio channels in the seats (which didn't seem to be working), and the "InterCity" trains (expresses pulled by more conventional electric locomotives; virtually all railways in Europe are electric these days) are air conditioned and clean. First class on those costs slightly more than second-class and gives you larger-looking seats (though they have the same number of them in the compartments) and power points near the window seats. (The EuroStar to Paris also had power points (European ones, not British ones), though the returning one didn't.)
- The "Palatino" sleeper from Florence to Paris is quite popular, and consequently the compartment I was in was full. Fitting into a second-class sleeper compartment (which holds six) with baggage is a bit of a juggling act. Apparently first class sleepers are said to be much more comfortable.
- Most if not all of the native English speakers one meets whilst travelling on trains through Europe are Americans. I wonder why this is; perhaps it's because Britons associate trains with day-to-day drudgery and avoid them whilst on holidays, whereas Americans regard them as part of the European experience.
A recent issue of The Times has a fairly detailed section on rail travel today; this section includes a survey of the state of European rail travel (summary: it's enjoying a renaissance, thanks to Eurostar and environmental consciousness, likely to improve further when cheap flights dry up, though ticketing still has some way to go before booking international rail journeys is as easy as booking flights), a section on travelling across Europe on Inter-Rail passes (along with four recommended European rail journeys to make with one's pass), as well as articles on train travel in Italy and India, shinkansen journeys in Japan, the backpacker-infested Trans-Siberian Express (whose 1-week journey time, the previous article notes, could be slashed to 18 hours if it was rebuilt using maglev technology soon to be deployed in Japan), as well as various luxury train journeys, such as the current holder of the "Orient Express" trademark (an opulent art-deco train journey from London to Verona), the Canadian Rockies and opulent Hungarian luxury trains. Also, Australia's Adelaide-Darwin rail link gets a writeup, getting rather mixed reviews (apparently the "Darwin" terminus 18km from the city centre is an afterthought, the carriages aren't quite as luxurious as one would believe, and the ride is bumpy; not to mention the fact that, catering only to tourists (it's too expensive for casual commuters) and having no stations along the way, it's "not quite a proper train" compared to others).
For anyone wanting more information on rail travel in various parts of the world, there's always The Man In Seat Sixty-One, a (somewhat UK-centric) one-stop information shop for rail buffs and travellers with an aversion to air travel.
It has been revealed that, during the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher threatened a nuclear strike on Buenos Aires unless the French handed over the codes for disabling Argentina's (French-made) missiles.
Mr Mitterrand — who once described Mrs Thatcher as "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe" — went on: "One cannot win against the insular syndrome of an unbridled Englishwoman. Provoke a nuclear war for a few islands inhabited by three sheep as hairy as they are freezing! But it's a good job I gave way. Otherwise, I assure you, the lady's metallic finger would have hit the button."Then again, would Britain have been able to launch a nuclear strike without US approval back then? These days, the British nuclear arsenal is operated under contract by a US defense firm, whose technicians apparently have instructions to require confirmation from the Pentagon before launching missiles. Then again, it is not entirely clear how difficult it would be for a determined Britain to get around these restrictions, or indeed that Reagan (who, famously, once went on air and announced, in jest, that the US was launching a massive nuclear strike against the "Evil Empire") would have vetoed a strike on Argentina.
Meanwhile, Mitterrand got his own back with the Eurotunnel, triumphing where Napoleon had failed, at least in his own mind:
France, he said, would have the last word. "I'll build a tunnel under the Channel. I'll succeed where Napoleon III failed. And do you know why she'll accept my tunnel? I'll flatter her shopkeeper's spirit. I'll tell her it won't cost the Crown a penny."
Several matrices describing what different European tribes think of each other; taken from this vaguely cocaine-tinged piece from eXile (which is sort of like a Moscow-based VICE).
And then there's How To Find A Man In Europe And Leave Him There, an American girl's guide to European men, loaded with facile stereotypes (not least of all being that of its intended target audience).
Some genius in the Netherlands has proposed a tax on MP3 players, with as much as €3.28 per gigabyte being slapped onto the price of each MP3 player, the proceeds going solely to the major record labels. This tax is set to become law in a few months. Were the tax extended to PC hard drives, it would increase the prices of hard disks many times over. Of course, given that Germany and Belgium are a short drive away, and under the EU constitution, there's nothing the Dutch government can do to stop the flow of tax-free iPods from German (or British or Slovenian or whatever) online retailers, the whole exercise seems about as effective as "Copy Controlled" audio CDs.
American students traveling abroad confirm the findings of a study indicating that Washington's unilateral approach to foreign policy has seriously undermined Americans' chances of getting laid:
"I'm in Amsterdam--Amsterdam, for Christ's sake--and I'm in the middle of the longest dry spell I can remember," Higgs said. "Last week, I was making out with this Italian girl at a concert. It was all going great until the music ended and she heard my American accent. I swear to God, I went from the cusp of a hand job to, 'Why won't your country sign the Kyoto Treaty?'"
"I voted for Kerry and I marched against the Iraq war," Biehn said. "But when I got to Europe, I might as well have been wearing a Bush bumper sticker on my forehead and star-spangled cowboy boots. As soon as the French guys hear I am from the U.S., all they want to do is argue politics."
And some advice for young Americans attempting to pull in Europe:
"First, pretend you're Canadian whenever you can," Hapbrook said. "But make sure you're not around actual Canadians, because they'll know you're lying and cock-block you. Second, if there are any anti-American protests going on, take care to avoid women carrying signs. Third, focus your itinerary on countries like Ireland and Japan that are still relatively friendly to Americans. You may want to write off France altogether," Hapbrook added.
Young Europeans are moving to India to work in call centres, as that's where the jobs are. They get paid Indian wages (i.e., a pittance when translated to euros, pounds or krone), but get free accommodation, subsidised food and free taxi fares to/from work, as well as sufficiently flexible schedules to travel around the country. At the moment it seems more like a backpacker working-holiday thing (somewhere between the two Australian rites of passage, the backpacking trip through Thailand and pulling pints in a pub in the UK) than a new trend in migration, though many are staying for longer, mostly for the culture and lifestyle (or possibly to defer the shock of finding how little their bank balance is worth back home).
A well-researched refutation of recent claims that Europe is being transformed into an Islamic society by waves of Islamic immigrants and their higher birth rates. The dire predictions of the impending Islamicisation of France tends to be based on simplistic straight-line extrapolations of current birth rates, ignorance of the effects of exogamy and assimilation, assumption of a single Islamic ur-culture capable of defeating the decadent liberal culture of the natives, and a good dose of alarmism and jingoism:
Americans who use these arguments are motivated mainly by schadenfreude. Are European countries skeptical about the Bush Administration's foreign policy goals? Could they be interpreted as at least sharing some interests with Muslim countries. We see this in Bat Ye'or, for instance, as she condemns a "Eurabia" created by Muslim immigration which has made Europe suicidally anti-Israeli. ('Suicidally," since anything Israel does is necessary for its defense and ultimately the defense of Europe.) We see this in Little Green Footballs, where nationalistic American posters say that the French will be under shari'a law because these decadent immoral people refuse to have enough children to keep Muslims from inheriting the country. They--sometimes just the French, sometimes the French with the Germans and Belgians, sometimes the entire continent--refuse to support us in our war against Muslims. Accordingly, they will pay the price, and see if we will save them from their short-sighted stupidities this time. Their opposition to our rightful crusade contains their own punishment. FrontPageMag's treatment of Spain, following the Popular Party's recent electoral losses, is a classic example.
(via Charlie's Diary)
Is the future of Europe an Islamic one? This article suggests so, pointing at declining birth rates and the need for immigration (which would come from Islamic countries), and makes dark allusions to Gibbon's Decline and Fall and hypothetical histories in which Muslims conquered Europe. Though it seems to equate European culture with Christianity (whose relevance has been declining there over the past few centuries), rather than post-Enlightenment modernism and liberalism. (via MeFi)
If you're wondering why I haven't posted anything about the Madrid terrorist atrocity here, it's because everyone else has already written about it, and I had nothing to say that would have been any more profound than "that's awful", or "those scoundrels".
Things are geting interesting now, though; the right-wing Spanish government (a key member of the neoconservative Coalition of Willing) had tried to pin the blame on ETA, the Basque separatist terrorist group (previously known only for small-scale car bombings), going as far as to instruct embassy staff to blame it on the Basques. Taking a hard line against the ETA and supporting the US-led invasion of Iraq were two policies of the rightists; so, when it emerged that it was an al-Qaeda operation, the electorate swept them out of office. Presumably they didn't have Berlusconi/Murdoch-style media control on their side; it must be really frustrating to think that, had they kept the al-Qaeda link under wraps (or obscured it with spin and disinformation) for 48 or so hours longer, they would have probably won by a landslide. Children overboard, anyone?
Meanwhile, the new brooms about to form government are the Socialist Workers' Party (who sound like a bolshy lot). Whether or not they're going to abolish private property and herd everybody into collective farms to work according to their ability for the common good, they certainly have been outspoken opponents of the invasion of Iraq, and are likely to join the Axis of Weasels alongside France, Belgium and Germany. (Aside: have any right-wing pundits asserted that the Belgian paedophile scandal and the country's lack of support for War Against Evil are part of the same moral decadence and lack of values?) The Blair administration are putting on a brave face, but the neoconservative coalition in Europe appears to be down to what: Britain, Poland and Berlusconi's Italy?
Also, terrorism experts are predicting that bombs on freight ships are likely to be the next trend in terrorism. Doesn't al-Qaeda have something like 15 freight ships, most of them at unknown locations? (Load one of those up with radioactive waste and Semtex and detonate it in a harbour, and the surrounding city becomes the new Pripyat; in 14 years' time, some chick with a motorbike and digital camera will come along and post photos of the evacuees' abandoned, radioactive iPods and Razor scooters to her website.)
An interesting look at the recent rise of anti-semitism in Europe:
The forum asserts that the most dangerous strand has its roots in Islam and that the rising number of Muslims in Europe is responsible for fuelling terror attacks, street violence and general harassment of Jews... it was revealed that the EU's racism watchdog has suppressed a report on anti-semitism because it concluded that Muslims were behind many incidents.
Deborah Lipstadt, the academic who won a libel victory after describing the rightwing historian David Irving as a Holocaust denier, this month described the "new" anti-semitism as directed at the "Rambo Jew, the Jew who is the aggressor".
"Sharon has a long record of calling Israeli critics of his policies traitors, and foreign critics anti-semites. The left is concerned that Sharon's policies are endangering Israel's future by fuelling virulent and violent anti-semitism."
The question arises of how closely criticism of Israeli policies (which, it must be said, have been somewhat hard-line in recent years) is connected with anti-semitic ideology. On one hand, it's implausible to assume that ideological anti-semites haven't jumped on this bandwagon (after all, there were reports of neo-Nazis joining the radical vegetarian/animal-rights movement looking for sufficiently zealous extremists to network with, a somewhat more bizarre scenario; closer to the situation, there were reports of neo-Nazi front groups joining the anti-capitalist protest movement, and trying to replace criticism of globalisation with discussion of "globalism", aka the cosmopolitan Elders-of-Zion bête noire). On the other hand, tarring all criticism of Israel with the brush of anti-semitism is obviously absurd, as much as accusing all critics of the Bush administration of despising Americans.
More signs of a widening rift between Britain and the wine-drinking socialist welfare states of Europe: the new Tory Shadow Home Secretary called for a reintroduction of the death penalty. Other senior Tories have dismissed the call, though if the Tories win the next election (which, with Murdoch showing signs of favouring Howard, isn't impossible), could we see Britain leave the EU and instead seek closer political union with the United States?
(Then again, if Britain was officially part of the US, they may not be imposing martial law in London for the Emperor's visit, what with Constitutional rights and all that. Who was it that said that everyone is either governed by US domestic policy or US foreign policy?)
Eurovision explained, by a blogger/sociologist type. You know, I may have to watch/tape the replay next weekend.
The songs themselves have evolved in interesting ways. Diggi-loo Diggi-ley represents the high-point of the nonsense-chorus Eurovision song, designed to appeal to the multi-lingual audience. This lowest common denominator approach produced successes throughout the first thirty years of the contest, including such classics as Boom-Bang-a-Bang (UK), Ding Dinge Dong (Netherlands), A-ba-ni-bi (Israel) and of course Diggey-loo Diggi-ley. (I promise I am not making these up.)
The breakup of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in the 1990s caused all kinds of problems for the contest (too many countries) but also injected a fresh dose of bad taste. Countries like Slovenia, Estonia and Romania can use odd native instruments to produce Euro-Heritage songs, and also have the advantage of being 10 or 20 years behind the rest of the world in terms of popular music genres.
In what could be another poke in the eye for the Washington Consensus, the Belgian parliament has voted to legalise the personal use of cannabis; sale within Belgium will still be illegal (though importation from the Netherlands probably won't be that difficult).
Fed up with being kept in the dark and fed bullshit by local news outlets, increasingly many Americans are turning to British and European news sites for world coverage. (via bOING bOING)
The American public is apparently turning away from the mostly US-centric American media in search of unbiased reporting and other points of views. Much of the US media's reaction to France and Germany's intransigence on the Iraqi war issue has verged on the xenophobic, even in the so-called 'respectable' press. Some reporting has verged on the hysterical - one US news web site, NewsMax.com, recently captioned a photograph of young German anti-war protesters as "Hitler's children".
One of the overseas news sites cited there is none other than the Guardian, that much-vilified mouthpiece of Saddam Bin Laden and his evil cronies. It's funny, because even before 9/11, "Guardian reader" was British shorthand for a certain type of urbane moderate leftist, a person attracted to worthy causes and seeing themselves as a fundamentally good human being in a specifically liberal-humanist way. Nowadays, in parts of the US (or at least of blogspot.com), it has become this generation's equivalent of "Vietcong sympathiser" or something. (See also: "Communist" as generic term of abuse, as in "dot-communists" being stock-optioned yuppies putting rents up.)
Meanwhile, the Graun has this piece on al-Jazeera, the controversial Arab news network which has made many enemies in the Middle East, and now plans to roll out an English-language network to compete with the BBC and CNN.
Brand USA has a hell of an image problem, it seems; it's not just al-Qaeda who hate what America stands for these days. Now American tourists in Europe and other places are finding themselves the targets of abuse over their government's unilateralist policies and thirst for war and/or their compatriots' penchant for oversized cars. The abuse ranges from people spitting at them and calling their names to being interrogated by taxi drivers about "America's megalomania". Something else to thank the President for.
But one incident really stung. "Man, it was bad," says the Rat Pack-y star of Swingers. "These girls saw us and were kind of flirting, and they kept asking us if we were American. Finally we said, 'Yes,' and they just took off. "One girl turns and says, 'We were hoping you were Canadian.' Canadian? Since when was it cooler to be Canadian?"
(Mind you, it could be argued that that is a small price to pay for your nation being feared and respected across the world; at least until China takes over as the dominant superpower, and follows in America's unilateralist footsteps. If you want a good future for your kids, make sure they can speak Mandarin.)
Meanwhile, Americans abroad are advised to blend in, avoiding fast-food restaurants, clothing bearing the US flag or sports team logos and discussion of politics. To which one might add learning to say "I'm Canadian" in many different languages. (via Reenhead)
Two articles on the America-vs.-Europe thing: Firstly, a Grauniad piece on the American cowboy elite's disdain for Europe and all the sissified, un-manly things it stands for:
When Bush's America disdains Europe, it also sneers at the American north-east. To them, "Washington, DC" is an insult, and "New York City" is where Europe begins. This counter-elite rules today as fervently and exclusively as in Reagan's 80s - more so, since they control all the branches of government. Rumsfeld is from Illinois, but his plain-spoken disdain speaks for the whole cowboy elite.
Even after his messianic State of the Union address, Americans at large are unconvinced of the need to rush to war. There's no evidence either that Americans overall enjoy riling Europe, Old or New. Just as John le Carré was wrong to declare recently that "88% of Americans want the war", there is little reason to fear that most of America sneers at the Kyoto protocol; or at the International Criminal Court; or at most of Europe's commitments - or, indeed, at Europe.
Meanwhile, the New York Times on those principled Europeans, putting forward the thesis that the Euroweenies are being anti-American out of sheer petulance rather than serious conviction.
Europeans, out of some romantic rebellion against America and high technology, were shunning U.S.-grown food containing G.M.O.'s -- even though there is no scientific evidence that these are harmful. But practically everywhere we went in Davos, Europeans were smoking cigarettes -- with their meals, coffee or conversation -- even though there is indisputable scientific evidence that smoking can kill you. In fact, I got enough secondhand smoke just dining in Europe last week to make me want to have a chest X-ray.
Finnish parliament kills European Copyright Directive, the EU's version of the DMCA, which would have extended the reach of copyright laws in a most draconian fashion. The EUCD was mandated by the European parliament, which means that each EU member state is in theory obliged to pass it into law, no ifs or buts. (Isn't democracy a glorious thing?) So far, only Greece and Denmark have done so, and Finland has decided it's not having a bar of it. However, the battle isn't won yet; the EU is likely to apply economic pressure to force Finland to toe the line, and if not, there is the prospect of US trade sanctions. Though with any luck, this will hearten anti-EUCD efforts in other European states and the copyright absolutists will have an open revolt on their hands. (via Slashdot)
European journalist Timothy Garton Ash's survey of anti-Europeanism in America; Europeans are seen as "EU-nuchs" or "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"; cowardly, amoral, godless, unprincipled, weak, effeminate, petulant, hypocritical, anti-Semitic, of poor personal hygiene and monumentally ungrateful for America constantly saving their asses: (via Graham)
A study should be written on the sexual imagery of these stereotypes. If anti-American Europeans see "the Americans" as bullying cowboys, anti-European Americans see "the Europeans" as limp-wristed pansies... The sexual imagery even creeps into a more sophisticated account of AmericanEuropean differences, in an already influential Policy Review article by Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace entitled "Power and Weakness." "Americans are from Mars," writes Kagan approvingly, "and Europeans are from Venus"echoing that famous book about relations between men and women, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.
Anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism are at opposite ends of the political scale. European anti-Americanism is mainly to be found on the left, American anti-Europeanism on the right. The most outspoken American Euro-bashers are neoconservatives using the same sort of combative rhetoric they have habitually deployed against American liberals. In fact, as Jonah Goldberg himself acknowledged to me, "the Europeans" are also a stalking-horse for liberals. So, I asked him, was Bill Clinton a European? "Yes," said Goldberg, "or at least, Clinton thinks like a European."
(Meanwhile, Tony Blair is seen as a honorary American, or at least as a member of the US State Department, and trying to tow Britain across the Atlantic, as it were. Already the renowned New Labour spin doctors who created "Cool Brittannia" are working with the Whitehouse to sell "Brand USA" to a skeptical (and Europeanised) British public. The modest proposal of a few years back that Britain leave the EU and join the United States is looking somewhat less absurd.)
Site of the day: Theo's wunderbare Welt der Bandfotographie. Band photos like they only made in Europe. Check out the matching jumpsuits and soft-focus photography. Not to mention the very serious-looking costumed metalheads on page 2 and the Santa Clauses with the MIDI keyboard on page 5, and classy names like "Golden Showband". Replete with (what look like) sarky comments in German. (via Reenhead)
Eric Raymond has written a smug Libertarian critique of Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod, rooted in the fundamental notion of the total bankrupcy of socialism and indeed the undeniable supremacy of the Free Market. No Ayn Rand quotes though. And here's Charles Stross' rebuttal.
(IMHO, the Randian/Propertarian argument of the supremacy of the Free Market is somewhat naïve, for the reasons Charlie describes (markets are good for some things but not all); the recent fashion of defining everything as being, in its basic sense, a market is rather daft. OTOH, I don't think the future belongs to any variant of Marxism (which was, after all, constrained by its 19th-century backgrounds).)
And then there's the "Cowboys vs. Eurotrash" subtext that usually emerges in the whole recurring argument, with predominantly American Libertarians making smug digs at the bankrupcy and impending collapse of Eurosocialism (usually coming down to how the ultimate oracle of the Market has shown that Big Macs and Britney Spears are inherently superior to baguettes and Johnny Hallyday, and any argument to the contrary is just the elitism of sore losers in the global cultural marketplace), and left-leaning Europeans pointing at rampant obesity, firearm deaths and other aspects of the Ugly American stereotype in response.
Two entrepreneurial stoners from Seattle are starting a marijuana delivery service in Europe.