Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Is it Schadenfriday yet?

"...traders may have been indirectly and inadvertently borrowing shares from Porsche, selling them to Porsche, buying them back from Porsche and then returning them to Porsche."

Quote of the day:

"None of this is currently outlawed by German authorities, but many commentators have described it as bringing German capital markets into disrepute."

Capital markets still have repute? Really?

Early Onset S.A.D.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The State of Real Estate

The State of Real Estate
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
RIME is a real estate company in Estonia. Picture taken by a friend. Good illustration, I think.

Monday, October 20, 2008

December Test

My review of Detsembrikuumus.

Comments on Baltlantis, if you please.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leadership: Ur Doin It Wrong

This summer, a couple friends came over from London, and I took them around Estonia. Showed them Russia from across the Narva river, etc. At one point we ended up in front of the Riigikogu building, and they asked if we could go in and look around. I figured it would need some sort of pre-registration, but actually the guard just gave me the number of the parliament's PR service and a very nice man came down to give us the tour. We were required to show ID... except one of my friends didn't have his passport with him. So they just asked him to write out his name on a piece of paper so they'd have the correct spelling.

This amused the Londoners greatly, but actually I find it a sign of a functional society. Nobody in Estonian government gets an armoured car. (The security service finally got one, for visiting dignitaries, after a decade of borrowing them from the Finns whenever necessary.) The President's motorcade is his stock Audi A8, with an SUV as a chase car - and maybe a police cruiser for special occasions. You may occasionally find the Prime Minister strolling down the quiet street that his Tartu house is on.

The reason I'm bringing this up is that apparently in America now, you cannot get into the White House unless you have a letter from your congressman - not even for the guided tour. And that's disfunctional. If you are a nation's leader and you need to be protected from that nation - ur doin it wrong.

Ah! I hear you say. But what if there is a nutjob out there who gets off on killing high-profile figures?

The answer is: this is the same misguided logic that leads to headscarves and burkhas in fundamentalist Islamic societies. And as a percentage of the population, I imagine there are far more nutjobs out there who get off on raping women.

If you want to kill a president because it gets you off, you are insane and most likely unable to function in society, so odds are you will have been caught long before you actually pull the trigger. If you want to kill the president because he is destroying the country, well, you shouldn't, but I still want the president to be worried about you. I want that possibility to influence the president's decisions.

But isn't a "good" leader to some, a "bad" leader to others?

No. That's not a good leader; that's a good ideologue. An enormous and vital part of a leader's job is doing things which are unpopular, but necessary. A measure of a good leader is not getting assassinated over it.


A few thoughts on Giustino's article on spheres of influence.

"How is it that membership in a security alliance founded in 1949 is seen as the only way a state bordering the Russian Federation can survive?"

Because NATO is a codification of the military component of a Western alliance. The world is no longer separated into the spheres of superpowers, but it certainly is separated into spheres of value systems, and for all the differences that Provence might have with Alabama, the democratic West (involving Australia and Japan) would far rather stick together than take their chances with China, Russia or Iran. As the US continues its misguided imperialist adventures, Europe continues its 60-year policy of avoiding war at all costs, bar the surrender of its values (which is why there are German troops in Afghanistan and Swedish troops in Kosovo). Global diplomacy is a dance around the elephant of war, not talking about it outright, but letting the other guys know you're carrying a ten-gauge. In this situation, NATO is not so much an alliance as a statement of intent. NATO membership is an indication that the country has chosen a side, should an all-out conflict erupt. History may not be completely cyclical, but the war in Georgia has proven empirically that Russia is willing and able to attack, with military force, a country within its imagined sphere of influence. That the country in question poses no credible threat to Russia is irrelevant.

"Why should those pesky Estonians continue to poke the Russians in the eye, when they can just be good boys like Pekka up north?"

Because Pekka was in bed with Adolph. Yes, anyone who's studied history understands that it was a forced measure after the West abandoned Finland in the Winter War, and yes, the Finnish section of the siege of Leningrad was the one that let vital supplies through. But the independence of Finland is no proof whatsoever of Russia's ability to play nice with its neighbours. The Soviet Union did invade Finland, and it did win that war, albeit with a massive loss of life and resource! After the peace treaty, the Finns were under no illusion whatsoever that Stalin had a continued intention to fold Finland back into the Russian Empire, and only delayed this project because he had bigger problems to deal with, down south. Which is why they turned for assistance to the only force that seemed capable of stopping Russia - no matter how evil that force was. Just because Finland broke her alliance with the Third Reich at the first sign of Allied competence, early enough to be claimed by the West in return for abandoning most of the Austro-Hungarian empire, does not excuse the exceptional Norsemen's behaviour.

So we can either deny the Finnish model, and throw our lot in with America and Britain, and hope that there will be an Admiral Cowan around for the next blowout; or we can adopt the Finnish model, and open up a class at the Tartu Flight College dedicated to plowing Sukhoi Superjets into the Gazprom tower.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Obligatory US Election Comment

Resulting from a discussion on a forum:

Hmm, this makes an eerie sort of sense: when McCain was stuck in a Vietnamese prison camp, he made a deal with the devil; he would get out, return to the US, become rich, marry a beautiful woman, have a successful career in politics, and eventually become President of the USA. For this, he surrenders his soul.

Now that he is at the end of his life, he suddenly realizes what an enormous mistake he made. Although he cannot give up on the deal directly, he is actually doing everything he can to tank his own campaign, so the Devil's promise remains unfulfilled and McCain's soul is redeemed.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Not Nearly the Same

The first article I've ever published on Baltlantis completely on my own. (The CMS there is a bit eccentric.)

I think I'm just gonna disable comments on posts mirroring BL, since it will get a lot more out of extra pageviews than me...

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Conquering Author

The Conquering Author
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
At the summit of Montserrat. (Not a difficult climb, but excellent scenery.)

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Cross Countries

Ejecting ourselves from the hotel, we quickly reach the border and leave Spain. After a few hours, we arrive in Arles, the regional capital of Provence. It is an eminently pleasant little town, exhibiting all the kinds of charm that Calella lacked; the contrast is remarkable, but perhaps unsurprising, as people actually live in Arles and have spent centuries making it into an environment to suit their tastes. Interestingly enough, the French fierce cultural self-sufficiency actually enhances the experience: swapping the few French words I can muster with the cashier at a small grocery store, you get the further feeling that if this is not a town dedicated to tourist service, then you are not a tourist, simply a traveller passing through on his way to further adventures. Arles features an excellent river (the Rhone, as in Cotes Du), a smattering of Roman ruins restored just enough to be useful without losing authenticity, and a wonderful old town with battered streetsigns leading to notable churches through back alleys: again, the churches are there for the locals, and nobody here cares enough to build wide boulevards leading up to them. Arles’s greatest claim to fame is that Theo van Gogh recovered here after cutting off his ear. I catch a brief glimpse of a local troupe performing a street version of what looks like Cyrano around the old hospital building and its highly agreeable flowery courtyard, dragging the audience around with them to a new location for each scene. I understand not a word, but still enjoy the performance.

Arles inadvertently and poignantly underscores the ridiculousness of the Estonian real estate market, as I spot a sign in the window of a house for sale. In the old town, in a sidestreet between the Roman arena and one of the more significant churches, sufficiently away from the touristy bits but still well within strolling distance of everything, it carries an asking price of 113 000 Euros – or some 1.7 million kroons. Sure, it looks like it’s no more than a relatively solid box at this point, for three floors and a 60m2 terrace in a seemingly great location in the bloody South of bloody France, they are asking about the same money as a semi-decent two-bedroom apartment in Tartu (or a broom closet in Tallinn). Suddenly and inexplicably, my thoughts turn to my pension fund.

Another blast down the autoroute and a night in what is by far the seediest F1 hostel yet, and we set off for Grasse, a town just uphill from Cannes and home to the French perfume industry. We are given a tour around a perfume factory and an extended sales pitch; I’m sure this is good product at a great discount, but I have no use for it.

We proceed to Nice, and I am forced to admit, it rather is. I have a cafe au lait on the Promenade des Anglais, just so I can later nonchalantly mention having done so to strangers, and stroll around for a couple of hours. Yes, the water really is beautifully, inexcusably blue.

The coach climbs into the hills and circumvents Monaco, which we glimpse from a high vantage point (I give my camera’s zoom function a workout). The rest of the day is spent in a hard blast right across northern Italy, including a gas station stopover, where I chat to the pilot of an old BMW 5-series with English plates and a lot of sponsor stickers on it; they were in a charity race from England to Rome and the beamer had broken down irrevocably.

We stop for the night at a campsite outside Venice (and when I say outside, I mean on the nearest bit of continent). The dug-in old caravan is, curiously enough, a marked improvement on the F1 motels, although not enough to make me understand why people insist on hauling these things about the countryside, when the not inconsiderable purchase price of one will likely cover the cost of charming little hotels for many a year’s worth of vacation. I briefly consider growing a Jason Lee moustache.

I am extremely impressed by the history of Venice, which was an independent state – and a pretty significant one at that – from the early 5th century and until the unification of Italy in 1870. That’s a span of more than fourteen hundred years, and the fact that Venice’s statehood usefully exceeds that of the Roman empire is an excellent example of the very pertinent idea that it is better to expand one’s influence through trade than through conquest – a point that cannot be made well enough these days.

The city of Venice itself is an interesting place to have visited, once, but no more than that. I was especially interested in it after I read an excellent book set there – Joseph Kanon’s Alibi – but these days it seems to have no purpose other than a tourist trap. Maybe I’m jaded, but once you’ve seen St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, the canal infrastructure is not in itself awe-inspiring, and that part of the world is not short of old palazzos anywhere. Unless the San Marco cathedral and the relics contained therein carry a special significance to you, Venice does not seem to contain anything spectacular. Still, I stretch the limits of the Italian I acquired in Rome and grab a gelato just off the Ponte Rialto. It’s excellent.

We blast north, across a significant chunk of Italy and into Austria. I’ve not had much regard for Austria before, suspecting that it was the result of God’s early experiment at giving Germans a sense of humor; the result was so gruesome that it had to be encased in mountains, for the sake of the rest of humanity. I had an Austrian for a boss, back when I sold inflatable dildos on eBay, and the most interesting fact I learned from him was that in Austria, your academic degree is literally part of your legal name. He had „Magister“ in his passport, and said that while he wouldn’t need to immediately change his documents when he got his doctorate, it would indeed be changed to „Doktor“ when they expired and got replaced.

My adjusted assessment of Austria is based almost entirely on a view from the autobahns, but I have to say, it wasn’t half bad; somehow I got the impression that unlike Germany, Austria does not take itself too seriously.

We stop overnight just over the border in Czech, in an old pile still carrying the pride of 80s Eastern Bloc interior design. The next day sees us cover all of Czech and most of Poland, including a ridiculous amount of time spent in Warsaw traffic. We stop twice, both times in a Tesco; the first is still in Czech and I take the opportunity to grab a bottle of beer, because you really have to. It helps the time go by, but when we pull into another Tesco in Poland, I am groggy and not entirely sure what I’m doing there. The rapid change from Czech koruns to Polish zlotys gives me an appreciation for Euros: travelling around the continent and having to adjust to new currency at every rest stop would drive you insane.


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