Sunday, September 23, 2007

Gold & Green

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

Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gas Pipe Redux

Nord Stream's reaction so far has been, "we're taking our toys and going back to Finland". Good riddance. Any crap they dig up from the bay floor is still going to do damage to Estonia, but at least now it's Big Brother's job to sort out the mess, and deal with the Russkies. That lot's been in the EU for ages, they use the Euro for heaven's sakes; let them handle it.

Giustino asked a few questions in the comments to the previous article, and the answer is long enough for a separate post:
Didn't Edgar also come out against this?

Do you buy the Laar partners with Savikas, facilitates Ansip's downfall, don't let the door hit you on the way out, Andrus, concept?

I do feel that Ansip is a bit like Tony Blair post-Iraq War invasion. Ie. he can stay in office for no matter how long, but the honeymoon (if there ever was one) is long over.

AND, why are the Sotsid so not front and center here? Not worth their time/political capital?
1) Edgar is irrelevant, to the extent that I don't think anybody bothered to ask him. It's a government decision, and even Edgar can't play Loyal Opposition with a straight face at this point.

2) I do buy the concept, since I'm getting the distinct feeling that Andrus won't last. I'll put a sixpack of Tõmmu Hiid on Laar getting the PM seat before the next elections, and there are three ways of doing it.

One, my perfect option - a coup in KERA, new blood signing a pact with the fuzzy-cheeked devil to preserve some credibility for the party. Unlikely simply because Edgar will not fade quietly into the night, he'll let go of the party about five minutes after he's dead.

Two, Edgar sees the light, comes crawling to Laar, accepts a high-level ministership in return for a coalition spot. The local elections aren't that far away, and his alcohol law hasn't exactly ingratiated him with the Tallinn population. Once he loses control of City Hall, he's done. As much as people are disgusted with Ansip, Edgar is actually hated and despised; for what it's worth, generating that attitude in a large swathe of the Estonian population is a commendable effort.

Three, Reform whips toss Ansip (he's never really been in charge of the party, hence his ploy for a massive personal vote of confidence), and for lack of a convincing figurehead, give Laar the PM seat in return for some truly heinous favours. From their POV, it's justifiable because it puts Laar in the position of having to sort out the mess Ansip left. As I've said before, Laar seems the only person capable of doing that properly, and if he does, there's a very good probability he'll be our next President, after THI's eight years are up.

3) The difference is that Estonian politics thrive on kicking the PM in the nuts. Ansip is in power until his first major goof, providing that either Edgar or the Reform bosses kiss and make up with Laar.

4) To be honest, I'm not sure. SDE has had less coverage than the Greens or the farmers throughout all this. They've just been sitting there, waiting for the consensus. They did well in the elections as the default bourgeois nonconformist choice, but half their leadership is in Brussels and I suppose whoever's left feel out of their depth.

Then again, this has been an utter Reform vs. IRL affair. The Greens made a statement because they really couldn't not bite, but SDE may just be biding their time and not getting sullied by the media circus: they have no obvious stake, and for them inaction may very well be the optimal course.

Steinbock House to Nord Stream: Stick That In Your Pipe and Smoke It

(UPD: Apologies for the bleeding obvious pun.)

So, the government has denied permission to Nord Stream AG to conduct exploration of the Baltic seabed, which was a prerequisite for laying down the Russian-German gas pipe. The official excuse is that such work would uncover information about the natural resources in Estonian economic and territorial waters, and the feasibility of their usage. As the government doesn't want that information public, the exploration is not allowed.

This was somewhat predictable. Ahead of today's decision, Reform was the only party saying it might be a good idea to let them dig - it seems that the whips are finally waking up to the idea that Ansip's bid to politicize the party's image is not in its best interests, long-term. IRL was decidedly against the permission, so were the Greens (obviously), and the Social Democrats seemed to have no obvious preference.

It's still a bit too early to tell what this decision means for the pipe - I'll report once something interesting comes up - but there's a significant point here for internal politics. Ever since the April riots, IRL has been on the sideline, mostly letting Ansip's gang take the heat (with the exception of Defense Minister Aaviksoo, whose domain was directly responsible for the monument). But this vote was the first time in recent memory when Estonia had an opportunity to actually poke the Kremlin in a way that would properly hurt - and neither Berlin nor Brussels could do anything about it.
Yesterday, Postimees published excerpts from reports by Finnish government agencies, saying that the pipework would disturb the silt that had absorbed lots of highly toxic stuff over the years (the Baltic is really an extremely dirty sea), and the construction is likely to result in massive environmental damage. This alone was an unassailable excuse for Estonia to deny permission, but even that was not necessary.
And the loudest voice was that of Mart Laar, who heads the IRL party, but has no position in the government. He's now seen as the driving force behind this jab at Putin, an active bit of foreign policy, and so far, a resounding success.

I keep saying he's in line for the PM job, and this only makes it that much more likely.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ready... Set...

So with the presidential elections looming, Putin needs [...] an official successor, a crown prince loyal to Putin himself. Inevitably this has to be someone ambitious, tough, but with no capability to succeed politically on his own merit. The man has to be lifted into the presidency by sheer power of Putin's endorsement.

Dare I say it... I was right?

Just the other day, Putin has fired one non-entity PM and installed another one. Master Lucas notes that this Zubkov fellow, while an old comrade of Putin's, does not seem to be part of the Petersburg spy clique. As Russian bloggers have pointed out, the man is 65 years old, and far less energetic than the other two probables, Ivanov (former Defense Minister who handled scandals of violence in Russia's conscript army with all the elegance and subtlety of Rick Santorum on antidepressants) and Medvedev.

One thing I was not aware of when I wrote the original article was that the Russian constitution does not limit a presidency to two terms in all - just two consecutive terms. It is entirely legal for Putin to run, and win, in 2012. In this case the candidacy of mr. Zubkov, an individual seemingly without serious political ambition, makes perfect sense; and so do suggestions that if he does win the elections, he will promptly abdicate under a good pretense so Putin can grab the seat again.

An interesting development is the old PM's stated reason for resigning. Fradkov said he wanted to give the president the freedom of staff decisions ahead of impending political events, and Putin accepted the resignation, agreeing that it is important for him to review the structure of power ahead of the elections. Notice anything odd?

Strip away the politic-speak that Fradkov, a career diplomat, cannot avoid if he wanted to, and you end up with something not often seen in politics, especially Russian politics: honesty. With no regard to appearances of democracy, Fradkov is saying he's going away so Putin can easily rearrange things in such a way as to make it easiest for him to get the result he needs from the parliamentary and presidential elections, and Putin thanks him for being so considerate as to not inconvenience the Prez.

They're not even trying any more.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Obligatory Jesus Phone Post

I held out as long as I could, but I wrote this extended comment, and figured no blog would be complete without an iPhone post.

Mobile Opportunity is wondering* why Apple slashed the price of the top-end iPhone by a third and discontinued the cheaper model, only a couple of months after its launch.

There are two explanations that pop up instantly. One is that they are unhappy with only having sold half a million units or so, and not being on target for their stated goal of ten million devices. This is unlikely, because Steve Jobs' personal reality distortion field aside, they must've built in the sort of profit margins that would make the project work with far lesser numbers.

The other is that they are shit-scared of the Nokia N95 finally coming to the US in a local spec. The Finnish device is fundamentally superior in both gadgetry and regular voice/SMS functionality. Certainly Nokia also has the advertising budget to push the phone: remember, this is a company that sells to the end user a million devices a day. And yet even they don't seem to be able to take on the Apple halo. While there is some overlap in the audiences, the N95 is still largely targeted at the sort of hardcore geek who runs Linux on his home machine and worships functionality, while actively despising the glamour focus of Apple products.**

The Mobile Opportunity guy suggests tentatively that Nokia's rash of new music-oriented models might have Apple spooked. But I'm fairly sure it's not the Nokia rollout bothering them: this is not the first time the reindeer herders tried to make dedicated music phones, in fact the XpressMusic sub-brand has been around for a while. It's certainly not the bottom end of Nokia's new range, those are targeted at SonyEricsson's strong Walkman line.

No, the answer is the release of the iPod Touch. That's where they are expecting their demand to shift. The iPhone is not actually very good as a phone: people buy it because the design and the double-touch UI make it viscerally desirable. I'd venture to say that a prevailing majority of iPhone buyers would actually prefer a video iPod with a full-face touchscreen and WiFi, and use whatever well-designed 3G/HSDPA phone they get for free from their carrier.

People who want the iPhone because of the looks will get the iPod Touch, with twice the storage for the same price, and people who want the hottest mobile gadget on the market will get the black N95.

**Full disclosure: my home machine runs on XP.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Monday, September 03, 2007


Tartu may still be a chilly place, but suddenly people have something to be happy about: last week Gert Kanter won the discus throw world championship for Estonia. Considering that Andrus Värnik won the javelin title last yeartwo years ago, and Erkki Nool's Sydney olympic gold medal in the decathelon, athletics are probably Estonia's second biggest source of international sporting pride, just behind uphill skiing.

In other news, an Estonian won a game design competition at the biggest computer gaming exhibition in the US last week. Full disclosure: I know the girl, and yeah, she's awesome. :)


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