Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Message for the New Decade - in Someone Else's Words

I guess it's been a rough few hours... My jaw's taken nothing but blows, the coffee ran out, I had to grab a cold shower, and my car got stuck in the snow. Someone suffered a stroke on the subway train, and I swore I'll never have a smoke again, and if it's all the same - I'd rather not be taking any calls today!

The fellow on the corner goes "The end is near!", and there's a fair amount of trouble in the atmosphere; don't forget about it, brother, be prepared if you discover that it's better not to bother with pretender's cheers... but hey:

It will be a tremendous year!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Role and Purpose of Europe

In all the worries about the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the European Union as we know it, we must recognize that it is the most noble and significant endeavor by this century’s generations. The example, if not necessarily the template, of Europe is the key to building a global society that would implement our greatest humanitarian desires. In a very practical way.

The succession of supranational entanglements that eventually became the EU was envisioned as a safeguard against war on the continent, making any such action detrimental to the actor’s own interests beyond his borders. The EU’s remit is far greater today, but the method has proven itself. Another, related, factor is the return of an increasingly ethical colonialism (where ethics are at least partially driven by a deeper application of capitalism, prosperity in the colonies being recognized as the precursor of a new affluent market). Between them, these two offshoots are a viable framework for avoiding war among the Golden Billion altogether:  not only is armed conflict prohibitively damaging to an integrated infrastructure, but is simply unnecessary. Projection of power and exercise of influence can be accomplished through trade sanctions and benefits. The resource that a rival nation possesses no longer needs to be taken and held – no unique pleasure remains closed off to anyone with a desire backed by cash.

The conflicts facing the Western world today are not insurmountable; it is vital to recognize that they are also not intrinsic, nor intractable.

Climate change, even at its worst, entails an extreme inconvenience to our meta-infrastructure (such as settlement patterns), but it is not a threat to humanity’s existence. Sustainable energy is a problem that has long-term solutions today, what we lack is the consensus and political will; as technology advances to make our lifestyles more efficient and desperation increases over the difficulty of exploiting new resources, there will be a point where something – be it the mass adoption of nuclear power to drive electric vehicles with vast battery capacities, or a way to produce liquid fuel from coal and shale with a minimal environmental impact, or something else altogether – is accepted as the way forward. If the seas rise, Dutch civil engineers will be in great demand.

The world’s greatest problem today is not the technological or geological obstacles, but the social ones. While opportunity and access is greater and more universal today than at any time in our history, there is still a stratification that is not acceptable. We must not be blind to the lessons of our own past, specifically those of the seemingly eternal differences between distinct neighboring tribes right here in Europe: the English, French, Germans and Italians may never stop disliking each other, but they have found a way to exist within one structure, to their undeniable individual benefit. Interpersonal differences between nations can be set aside. Hatred is driven, ultimately, by envy (a type of which is insult).

The Western world does not have any significant internal conflicts; those it does can be managed. Threats to global stability and prosperity come from the conflicts between elements of the Western world and elements of humanity that have not (yet) been incorporated into the swelling Golden Billion. The quintessential conflict of our time, that of the Middle East, is based on envy of disparate living standards and insult over resource exploitation; the transient nature of the juxtaposition between radical Islam and the segment of humanity that Europe belongs to is proven by the very fact that no such all-encompassing enmity existed before the middle of the last century. (Historic wars between Europe’s ancestors and various caliphates, even crusades, were ultimately about land – i.e. resource; even the seemingly irresolvable quagmire of Palestine is a question of land.)

The solution to social conflict can be found in the example of the European Union. For two decades it has devoted vast treasure and toil to establishing prosperity in territories where established wisdom was diametrically opposed to Western ways.  It has done this while remaining benevolent, with a strict self-conscious restraint on cultural imposition. Its success is unassailable. Comparing European elements of the former Second World with those of Central Asia – which have either significant natural resources, or direct access to dynamic trade partners, or both – proves that no country that accepted Europe’s help would have been better off without it (and even the holdouts long held as skeptics’ examples, specifically Iceland, are now asking embracing Europe). The associated loss of sovereignty remains almost entirely ephemeral, and is indeed trumpeted rather more by populists in Old Europe than the overwhelmingly pragmatic population of New.

The European Union cannot expand without reservation, but it must continue to expand. The incorporation of the Balkans will make their issues with each other as theoretical as those between Ireland and England today. Further out, the eventual incorporation of Turkey and perhaps even North Africa will prove to more troubled areas that they too can see prosperity within their lifetime. The practicality and inevitability of success is the means by which we will convince the world’s disillusioned to beat their swords – not into plowshares, but into netbooks.

Europe does not need to be the world’s dominating force. It is the example of the EU that counts, not our specific set of values – after all, our primary message is that of allowing each society to maintain its values without sacrificing prosperity. Our success will only be strengthened if a Latin Union cements around Brazil, if South-East Asia becomes the battleground for revenue records between the confederacies of moderate Muslims and capitalist Chinese.

But it is Europe’s role, purpose and obligation to lead our brothers and sisters into this better world.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

We made it. The crap decade is just about done; let's hope the next one will be better. The 21st century started on 9/11; I think the twenty-teens will be remembered as having started in '09, with Obama's inauguration. In this country, should the next decade really be better, it will have started on 2011 - when we adopt the Euro. The Bank of Estonia says we're quite likely to meet all the criteria. The government is saying that the budget is filling up on schedule, the cuts in public spending have done their job. If this pans out, it will be a great example of an Estonian truism: the Reform party is the one you want to be in charge when the economy needs to be fixed, even if they're not to be trusted with actual politics. There was a recent scare with a leaked European Commission document that was less than generous towards the Baltics, but Germany's Finance Minister says we're fine. I'm still not absolutely convinced we'll make it, but the government sounds like they're quite confident about it - much more so than I'd expect from a hail mary.

The AnTyx award for positive example of the moment goes to SmartPOST, the package shipping company that lets you drop off and pick up packages at your local supermarket, and even ship commercial stuff like eBay-equivalent purchases. They've just expanded their services to Finland, but I'm more impressed by the fact that their automated shipping stations are being used in Italy, with negotiations to bring them to other EU states. This is a technology and concept that was developed in Estonia, and the equipment is being built in Viljandi. Exactly the kind of high-tech, ingenuity-based export that the country needs. Estonia's competitive advantage is the ability to roll out and debug an infrastructure on a relatively small and manageable scale, before deploying it in far larger markets. This needs to be exploited, and SmartPOST is doing just that. Good on them.

The AnTyx award for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory goes to Coffee In. This is a local coffee chain, started in Tartu and expanded to Tallinn. Unlike Reval Cafe or other competitors, it's not designed as a place to hang out - the idea is that you grab your coffee on your way to work. Their shops used to be all over Tartu, including one in the lobby of my office building, and their loyalty program gave you ever 5th (or something) drink free. Then the majority of shops closed down, and the loyalty program got progressively worse - and now they've replaced a flat discount with a preposterously complicated points system, where your benefit for each month depends on how many drinks you had in the previous month. Considering that the only Cofee In locations left are in shopping malls, and not anywhere near where I might actually want to grab a latte on the run, the company is an excellent example of a good idea being killed off by crap management. Which is a damn shame, because I quite like their coffee.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 30, 2009

БЛОГЪР

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

Europe's Choice: Switzerland or Serbia?

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

I disagree.

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

Your freedom stops at the tip of my nose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Right and Wrong Ways of Shopping Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Moka Bravo

Not that I'd want to impinge on comrade Mingus's territory, but I do make an effort of publicising outstanding businesses when I encounter them in Estonia. At the moment, I'm quite impressed by the Moka cafe.

The location is most known for its thin-crust pizza, and back when I was in university, I'd spend many a free period in the Pronto Pizzeria that was Moka's previous iteration. The cafe was renovated a few years ago, getting a better decor and some vital additions, such as an easily accessible bathroom. They kept their mainstays of pizza and a soup/salad bar, adding a pretty good selection of baked goods.

I'm not sure when exactly they got their current chef, but Mingus had good things to say about Moka back in October. Recently, they also got a new PR person, because Moka now has a pretty aggressive consolidated presence across Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. They continuously post beautiful shots of really well-presented dishes. Normally I'm not necessarily a fan of zealous advertising, but Moka manages to not be annoying or overbearing about it.

I went in the other day, and ordered something off the menu - the seafood bisque. It was outstanding. A delicious, creamy broth served over a half-dozen scallops, backed by a side dish of a fishcake and potato mash, all garnished with sundry seafood and served beautifully. If they're using pedestrian ingredients, they're hiding it well through both preparation and presentation, and seafood is a very difficult thing to get right in Tartu - the very posh and self-important La Dolce Vita served me diced surimi sticks on a frutti di mare pasta not so long ago. Were I to criticise, the biggest downsides of my Moka experience were the single napkin that my knife and fork came wrapped in (I don't have the dexterity to operate scallops without resorting to my fingers), and the fact that the bread served was a store-bought roll with the sort of cheap cheese topping that Mingus hates with a passion. But this really is the biggest gripe I can think of, and I am being terribly petty: they wouldn't have denied me more napkins had I asked, and the roll was at least warmed up. Competitors such as Truffe or Pierre have better bread, but Moka's food was miles ahead of anything I'd had in either recently. Most importantly, the bisque was a laughable 72 kroons! It may be expensive for a soup, but this was a hearty enough dish to satisfy an adult, and at less than five Euro, it is scandalous value.

Moka Bravo indeed. I just hope they can keep it up.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ansip Grows Balls Once Irrelevant

Tangent: the previous post was number 500 on AnTyx. A little over four years down. Not going to celebrate terribly, but still a nice little anniversary. Also, since Baltlantis seems to have gone the way of the dodo, this article also appears on the Estonian Free Press; I've turned off the comments here, so go to EFP to leave feedback.

Interesting article in Postimees this morning. Interview with the Prime Minister, who has some things to say about his main political rival, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar.

Speaking to the paper, PM Ansip called on Savisaar to apologize for his claims that the Estonian kroon would be devalued right after the election, and that senior citizen benefits would be cut. Savisaar had said on public record, in his own articles, that he was completely sure it would happen - so now he ought to either apologize, or explain why his predictions didn't come true. Ansip also publically questioned the publicity stunt of purchasing half a million kroons' worth of potatoes and firewood to hand out to Tallinn's poor, and then spending two million kroons on advertising the fact. Ansip also mentioned that Savisaar's claims were directly contradicted not only by objective reality, but by the opinions of the IMF, the European Commission, the Moody's rating agency* and The Economist magazine.

Bold words from the Prime Minister, and the kind of adversarial debate that Estonia's politics - and particularly the right-wing parties - sorely need. All the more baffling that it comes after the coalition utterly failed in Tallinn's municipal elections. Where was Ansip during the campaign? Why wasn't stuff like this on Reform's campaign posters? If Savisaar made the local election all about national politics, and fully exploited his position as the capital's incumbent mayor, then why wasn't Ansip out there, actively attacking the Centrists' statements, policy and record?

Not that I'm calling for more ad hominem attacks and name-calling in election campaigns - but Ansip seems to be talking about factual errors, broken promises and disingenuous claims. The sort of thing that you would expect to be shouted from the rooftops before the elections - back when it could make a difference.

Without being an inner-circle Reform strategist, I can only think of two points. One, the coalition has given up ground in hope for a better attack opportunity in 2011. I have a sneaking suspicion that Reform's next prime-ministerial candidate will be Andres Lipstok, who, as the head of the Bank of Estonia, will have a tremendous platform should the country succeed in adopting the Euro a year from now - just before the next parliamentary elections. In order to secure the top job, Reform is willing to give Savisaar all the rope he needs to hang himself; and if we fail to get the Euro, the coalition will certainly make a powerful stab at blaming Tallinn's excessive borrowing for driving up the budget deficit past the Maastricht boundaries. Remember, Mart Laar was incredibly fortunate to get left out from Ansip's cabinet, and thus escape any of the blame for the Bronze Soldier debacle; did the Reform Party, knowing that they were very unlikely to get control of the capital, throw the fight in order to make the capital's voters blame Savisaar for all their ills 15 months from now? Of course, I am probably giving them too much credit.

The other point is based on the same assumptions. Ansip knows he will not survive another direct election, he will not be Prime Minister after 2011, and the only reason why his government still scrapes together enough dissenting opposition votes to push legislation through the Riigikogu is because he's the consensus scapegoat. Given this, is Ansip really that motivated to apply his entire effort in support of Keit Pentus and the party whips?

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*Not that financial rating agencies are relevant in 2009. But hey, the article mentioned it.

Monday, November 02, 2009

A Tourist Guide: Estonia according to Estonians

Same guy who did the Europe according to Estonians video. Lots of local memes, but hilarious.

Friday, October 23, 2009

I Don't Think You Know What "Interesting" Means

Here's a news article linked from one of my forums. The news story itself is a couple of days old now. The gist of it is that a Frenchman paid some Kosovar gangsters to kidnap a German and drop him off near a French courthouse. The German had previously been convicted in absentia in France of the manslaughter of the Frenchman's daughter; the German authorities found the case to be without merit, and so refused to extradite him.

Just to get it out of the way, my personal opinion is that the Frenchman - who appears to be cooperating with the police in the identification of the kidnappers - should be tried, convicted for kidnap, and sentenced to lots of community service. He broke the law, but in the least evil way possible under the circumstances. (For comparison, consider Drasius Kedys, the Lithuanian who murdered two people suspected of molesting his daughter.) The German is now in French custody; the article says that a conviction in absentia means he will now go through another trial, where he will have the opportunity to defend himself.

What bothers me is the cocnluding line of Charles Bremner's article from the Times Correspondents section:
It's interesting that we have only had the French side of this story.
As I commented on the article itself - yes, because it would be ridiculous to expect a staff writer for a major newspaper to actually get the German side of the story!

Even though the article itself appears in the Blogs section, it still carries the Times header; as such, Charles Bremner does represent the institution and ought to be bound by the habits of good journalism. I usually defend the established media in the face of claims that it has outlived its usefulness in the age of Digg and Twitter, but lazy incompetence of the kind exhibited by master Bremner makes it difficult to do so. "It's interesting" can be expected from a blog (though even then it is vulnerable to ridicule), but in a major news source, it ought to be cause for immediate termination. The very least that the Times correspondent must do is contact the German prosecutor's office and ask for a statement, better yet - have a look at the reasoning in Germany's official refusal to extradite or even pursue the case. Even if that information is not public record, certainly the Frenchman and his attorney would have access to it. And if Bremner were to strike out, find nothing of significance, then the line should read "The German authorities declined to comment on the case".

Charles Bremner uses the word "interesting". I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Estonian Girl

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

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I don't care, just vote against the incumbent.


It's less than a week until the election. I've already voted online; ended up choosing Mihhail Lotman on the IRL list, for no better reason than the fact that my parents were students of his father, the famous semiotician. Lotman is a university person, and while certifiable intelligence in no way precludes one from making really bad decisions, it's as good a differentiator as I'm going to get in this municipal election. IRL's list also includes Ene Ergma, not that there is any chance she'll actually stick around to serve on the city council. The candidate list regulations for Estonian elections are disappointing.

I haven't had that much cause to be unhappy with the existing Tartu city government, but they've done nothing to impress me, either. Reform's problem these days is an utter lack of vision. They've always gotten by quite well on being the quietly competent party, but that will not be enough to overcome the bad will accumulated by the government in a crisis. IRL doesn't have anything particularly interesting to say either (they promise to fix the appalling public bus system in Tartu, but I don't think they can), but they're inoffensive to me, and just nose ahead on the respect gained from the candidates' willingness to hang out near Kaarsild at 8am on a weekday, handing out coffee.

The Social Democrats are desperate enough to resort to spamming, on the one hand, and extremely dubious political statements on the other. Having gotten kicked out of the coalition for not playing nice, they are still under the delusion that they matter, and have now suddenly remembered that they are supposed to be a left-wing party. So they came out in support of the latest Keskerakond bright idea: making mortgage loans non-actionable. The idea being that a loan is secured only by the real estate; if the owner is underwater, he can just walk away from it. (Nevermind that Estonia already has a personal bankruptcy law, which can be applied to people who are genuinely in trouble.) It's pandering to an irresponsible, infantile mass. I'd long since stopped expecting anything better of Savisaar, but SDE should be ashamed.

Of course, the election is mostly about Tallinn, and the vast majority of the campaigning is focused on it. Knowing he's lost the reasonable vote, and completely devoid of any actual ideas on how to improve things, Savisaar's defaulted back to "Ansip sucks dicks" and "vote for me, I'll give you potatoes". The opinion polls seem to suggest that there is a chance of a coalition keeping the centrists out of power in Tallinn this time around. That would be nice.

Who else is left? Rahvaliit? Very funny. The Greens? They're a bunch of utter morons, opposing anything they can if it brings them some semblance of street cred among the hippies.

Somebody in my blog feed suggested we reintroduce a property test for voting rights, and while that's undemocratic, I can't help but go "hmm". Freeloaders who refuse to take responsibility for their choices, and then expect the state to bail them out, are not the sort of people who should be allowed to have a say in the way a country is run. Most of the serious social stimulants in this country are already in the form of income tax breaks. If you've been actually receiving cash from the state for more than 2 years (to account for maternity and temporary unemployment insurance), you have a conflict of interest, and are not allowed to affect the political process. Ah, I can only dream...

Something called Uus Laine in Paldiski actually paid Tallinn's nightgame host to do a free-to-play session in the port city on election day, noon to 6pm. The only condition is that all cars need to be carrying flags with the party's logo. I don't think there was much interest.

Here's a parting thought. It might be a downer, but go and vote. If you have no good motivation to vote for any particular party (much less a candidate), then just vote against whoever was in power last time. As usual: if you don't vote, you don't get to bitch.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Tim Minchin - Storm

Outstanding. Simply outstanding.

The Slightly Used Book Shop

I've often said that there are only a few international consumerist icons that I really wish existed in Estonia, and that among them are Subway (the sandwich place), and Waterstone's bookstores. I have a vocational disorder where I cannot read a book in translation if I know the original language - I keep getting distracted by the artifacts, keep going "I see what you did there". The selection of English books in Tartu and Estonia in general, while significantly improved in recent times, is still inadequate for my requirements. Half of my baggage coming back from the States was dead tree.

Yes, there's Amazon, but a)shipping gets expensive, and b)I still enjoy the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar bookshop and browsing through the tomes. It's probably ironic how, in the age of the Internet, physical books are still so eminently popular. Popular enough, in fact, to fall under the "80% of everything is shit" maxim. For proof, go no further than the guest segments on The Daily Show.

I saw something in NYC that is even better than Waterstone's, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders. The biggest bookstore in Manhattan does a very brisk business in second hand. They actually have a section and staff dedicated to buying back people's books.

This is an idea that, I think, would be extremely beneficial to Tartu. I have actually considered doing it myself, except for the fact that I am far too lazy to handle all the minutiae of starting up and running a small business; I would need to find a really good manager and stay a silent investor type myself. (I do know a person who'd be perfect, but that very character quality means she's already quite busy with various organizational duties.) But I genuinely think that a slightly used book store could be successful in this town. Tartu has an Apollo and a Rahva Raamat, and the university bookshop, but beyond that it's just antique stores with derelict wares. There must be others like me in this town, people with shelves stuffed with books they enjoyed once but probably won't re-read in the future. If, say, the average new English-language paperback costs 150 EEK, my shop could buy them back for 50 and sell for 75. And we don't have to limit ourselves to English books, the point rather is to offer a cheap alternative for modern, mainstream literature, in any (physical) form. How many times do you think we would re-sell the same Harry Potter volume, collecting a profit each time? I gather that US videogame stores have been doing quite well off that model.

And no, I wouldn't be competing with libraries: they have a limited selection, aren't motivated to keep up with demand, and come with a built-in obligation to return the book by a certain deadline. Ownership just feels good.

Until I get off my ass and make this happen, however, here's the next best thing: BookMooch. It's the book version of an idea some friends and I threw around for a while, the International Beer Exchange - the point was to mail a bottle of your local brew to someone far away, and get a credit that you could use to request a different flavour from elsewhere. (I even owned the domain internationalbeerexchange.com for a while.) My plans for the Slightly Used Book Shop did actually involve providing the service across Estonia, using the SmartPOST network. BookMooch is a more Web2.0 community-ish affair: you list the books you no longer want, and people can show their interest. You send off the book, and get an arbitrary credit that you can use to request another book from someone else. Encouragingly, Estonia is actually already represented quite well, with around 60 books currently available.

Here's my page on that service. Sign up, and tell your friends about the service!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Shenandoah Mõmmi


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

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Reverse Nimby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or someone whose movies you like.

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

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

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

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Telegraph Folly

My sister (who lives in Brussels and does something with international labour law) asked me to comment on a link she was sent. I started writing a response, but it grew enough that I might as well post it here, for general consumption.


It's claptrap. The author mentions no economic theory to explain how the impending doom will actually come about. He begins with forced misdirection, using private debt figures in a context designed for public debt. He then mentions that the state "could" spend more, and that we have a remarkably low public debt figure. He assembles random scary soundbites, such as our economy falling twice as much as Iceland (Iceland's economy is fishing and geothermal-powered aluminium smelting, it has nothing to do with the financial crisis that killed the country). Essentially, it is a piece written to order. His editor asked for a thousand words on how the Estonian economy is fucked, and he assembled the best bits of trollbait and posturing that Google could provide.

As a rule of thumb, do not trust an Englishman with a double-barreled last name to be actually competent or knowledgeable about anything.

The rebuttal is the same it's been since 2007: the private debt is held by foreign banks, and is Sweden's headache, not Estonia's. Estonia has a reasonable personal bankruptcy law, and devaluation would simply result in massive foreclosures that would leave Swedish-owned banks with swathes of property they could never sell for anything approaching the value of the loans. Estonia's Euro accession is in the absolute, unequivocal interest of the parties holding the private debt, which is why the Swedish central bank has recently declared that they made billions of SEK available to the Estonian central bank, in order to maintain the EEK's stability.

The impressively tragic numbers describing the fall in real estate prices in Tallinn belie a virtual lack of transactions. As I've said a long time ago, the biggest realty discounts come from new-build projects, where developers are slashing initially astronomical margins on units that were built to the lowest cost. Lack of consumer confidence and prohibitive interest rates have destroyed demand, and the relatively small amount of desperate supply is available at fire-sale prices to those lucky few who can pay cash. There are damn lies, there are statistics, and there are percentages: you'll get a scary picture if you compare a buyer's market against the apex of an insane price boom.

In any case, it is almost unbearably ironic to be accused of high personal debt and unrealistic house prices by the British!

The motivations behind Estonia's behaviour in the current economic climate are quite difficult for outside observers to comprehend. Part of it is politics, yes: we are willing to sacrifice much in order to integrate ourselves with Europe's infrastructure to the extent that it will be cheaper to defend us than to throw us to the bear. But there is more to it. While the entire Western world is battling a recession with massive government spending, we are doing something that simply does not occur to Telegraph readers (or writers): living within our means.

It was Stockholm and Frankfurt's folly to pump cheap loans into Estonia, and we'd have been fools to ignore the opportunity - personally I am giddy with satisfaction at my mortgage payments, consisting of a contractually fixed tiny margin over a freshly bottomed-out EURIBOR. My apartment's worth less now than what I paid in the fall of 2006, but not less than I owe on it (because the local banks always demanded significant down payments, which the British, with their multi-generation home loans of 110% of the value of the purchased property, should really give a try). And if we really were that bothered by the size of the private foreign debt - which master Evans-Pritchard emphasizes is the second highest in Eastern Europe, though even in percentage terms it pales in comparison to that of the UK - then we would indeed devalue the kroon. Let SEB and Swedbank repossess all those Soviet tower blocks, while we once again become cheap labour, drawing off the last of Western Europe's skilled jobs; and five years from now, when the defaulted debts of a third of the country are wiped clean, we will simply buy all the property back from the banks at a fraction of the loan amounts. I wonder how surprised Ambrose Evans-Pritchard and other devaluation advocates would be if they saw the employment contracts of Estonia's competitive middle class, particularly the clause that guarantees a recalculation of salaries in Euros if the peg is lost!

Instead, we are being responsible, reliable allies of Western Europe, maintaining our obligations and dealing with the real world. Which is not something I would expect an Eton twit to understand.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Back to your regularly scheduled programming

...yes, well. I've come to the realization that not many people particularly care about the details of the UStrip, and those that do will have already heard them over a drink. So I shall say no more of it, except to mention that NYC has joined Stockholm and Barcelona as a city where I would genuinely love to live - but with the caveat that I would need to already be rich. It is natural for me to be sarcastic about the hipster culture, but I must be honest: were I in a position of having more money than imagination, I too would choose the life of a Tribeca trustafarian.

Should you wish to peruse any further account of the author's travels this summer, the Flickr widget is to your right.

Meanwhile the best excuse I have for not blogging is that I have spent no small amount of time and effort cultivating a habit of saying nothing unless I have something interesting to say; and far more of both in learning to recognize whether what I have to say really is interesting. Without conclusive evidence, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I assure you my life in the past months has been interesting, just not in a way you would care about. The trials, doubts and difficult decisions have found their way into the firepit at Mingus's country estate, where skeletons belong. I return to you, the stunningly patient reader, with a renewed vigor in the general sort of existentialist whimsy that is the engine of AnTyx. Hope you've missed me; I have certainly missed you.

I've been pleasantly surprised to find some gems in movies I have seen recently. The one I would primarily direct your attention to is Frequently Asked Questions about Time Travel, which is most completely described as Shaun of the Dead, but for time travel. While Chris O'Dowd may not quite have that same air of sardonic befuddlement, the film itself certainly captures the air of movies that a fair amount of my friends are great fans of. You'll enjoy it if you're a sci-fi fan, and you'll enjoy it if you're a Simon Pegg fan.

I liked Gamer, although I can understand if a lot of people won't. I accept its flaws as an uncomplicated action movie with a formulaic plot, and with low expectations, it does redeem itself in two ways. One, somewhat predictable: Michael C. Hall is a great villain. He's not exactly showing us a new facet of himself, but his portrayal of a psycho is delicious enough; unchained from Dexter's building desire to achieve, or at least convincingly mimic, some degree of humanity with all of its boring little melodramas, he provides the pure, inhumanly evil persona that has been disappointingly absent from the silver screen since the early Bond movies. The other breath of fresh air is the film's pacing. It is an odd irony, but this bit of mindless gore is the first film in recent memory that flatters the viewer by presuming intelligence. It knows that the audience is well familiar with the tropes, and does not spend time on redundant, superfluous plot or character development. Every time you go "I know what's going to happen next", the film responds with "alright, then let's skip it and go to the next part". The honesty is tremendously endearing.

I was in search of a Sunday night's light entertainment, and found it in Tartu's now-lesser movie theater, in the form of Easy Virtue. It's based on a play by Noёl Coward, and is outstandingly fun. The posters and trailers make it out to be a film where Jessica Biel pretends to be Scarlett Johansson, but in fact it is a wonderful theatrical comedy, full of fast pace and British humour; playing to type, but an excellent execution. Kristen Scott Thomas is extremely good, Colin Firth puts in a brief appearance, and Jessica Biel herself does far better than anyone would have expected. Her performance, while not groundbreaking, certainly does not let the film down. And I like the butler.

Taking Woodstock - I will simply say that Liev Schreiber in drag is awesome.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Uptown, Downtown...


IMG_9257
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
The next morning I head out into NYC, armed with a Lonely Planet guide. I gawk at Grand Central and take pictures of the United Nations building before walking through a street fair on Lexington Avenue. I go up to the Apple store, and purposefully sit there for half an hour, browsing on their free WiFi with my Nokia. I meet up with a friend and we go into Central Park, managing to walk straight into a giant public party sponsored by the Israeli tourism board (complete with Palestinian protesters and, curiously, Israeli counter-protesters). We have a look at the big lake, spotting the occasional turtle and the biggest fucking goldfish you have ever seen - the length of my arm, and I am not kidding. We double back and head down to the Village, for a meal at Yaffa Cafe, where I get my full, proper dose of hipsterdom and irony (and more free WiFi) over a surprisingly reasonably-priced couscous. Jetlag and a carbohydrate coma lead me to suggest an espresso, and we walk through Chinatown into Little Italy. It's inevitably excellent.

Monday comes around, and I make a point out of doing the tourist thing. I take the subway in a vaguely downtownish direction, walking down Broadway from 6th street all the way to City Hall. The World Trade Center is a big fence, but eight years on it's still palpably creepy; perhaps because you know that an empty space this large is really not supposed to be there. I find Wall Street and have a rest in Federal Hall, now a museum, just across the street from the NYSE (no public access). I buy an organic drink at Pret-a-Manger and chat with the girl at the counter; maybe it's just that I'm not used to people being randomly friendly, or maybe she's bored, or maybe she's happy to see a real person without a suit and tie for once. I don't imagine much of her business is made up of people who say "thank you", not in this neighborhood.

Wall Street itself, by the way, is short and narrow, and feels really opressive.

I find the bull statue and have my picture taken. The line for the ferries to the Statue of Liberty is ridiculous, so I consider taking the Staten Island ferry instead - it's free, a commuter route, and doesn't lead anywhere interesting, but the view of the Manhattan skyline is supposed to be wonderful. It's too rainy though, so I walk over to the TKTS booth. This is the place that sells last-minute Broadway tickets for cheap; my Lonely Planet book really paid off, as most people only know of the booth in Times Square, which is naturally always packed. This other one is completely empty, and I get a pair of tickets for that night. The show is Rock of Ages. That is also the point where my phones stop working properly. I had two handsets, my N85 and an old Ericsson T39 that I got off eBay for thirty bucks. The N85 was roaming on AT&T, while the Ericsson was running a local T-Mobile prepaid SIM; now the Tele2 card stopped working completely, the Ericsson would not find a network on either, and I could only use the T-Mobile in the Nokia - but I was also using it to navigate, and the license for the GPS software was coded for the Tele2 SIM. Unpleasant.

Monday, July 27, 2009

UStrip: Arrival


Broadway
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
The Jumbo lands, and I walk onto the gangway of Newark Liberty International Airport to see the Manhattan skyline in the distance. I watch the CNN coverage of Iran riots in the line to border control, where an impressively muscular gentleman with an accent straight out of a bad stereotype grills me on the finer points of my last visit to the States. Reluctantly, he admits me.

I make my way to Penn Station and onto the subway, trundling all the way out to Brooklyn to the hostel I'd booked; when I finally find it, there is nobody home. I call the number on the reservation to hear that the booking had supposedly been cancelled, and that HostelWorld fucked up by not telling me (to the extent that I got a confirmation SMS earlier in the day, reminding me of the hostel's address). With some dismay, I return to Manhattan to find my friends at a cafe; fortunately it has free WiFi and I use my laptop to find a hotel at ultra-short notice. It's three times as expensive, but still semi-reasonably priced for an excellent location, and I cease to care. I drop off my bags and we go out, to see the throngs in Times Square and ride the elevator to Top of the Rock. While the Empire State building is taller, the observation platform on the last floors of the Rockefeller Center is supposed to provide a better view; unfortunately I happen to arrive in New York in the midst of wildly unseasonal rain, and the city is fogged up.

We take the subway to Chinatown and go into Joe's Shanghai, a very NYC sort of place in that it is highly rated and delicious, but not outwardly ostentatious. Our party of four is seated at a large table with a couple of other gangs. On recommendation, I order the soup dumplings, the restaurant's specialty. These are large dumplings, similar to Georgian hinkali, that contain not just a piece of meat but also a very thick broth, and they are excellent. Dana and Dave confer to decide they want something that doesn't come with a face, and immediately order the sea bass. I think they expected it to come in steak form, but in the event it was prepared and served whole, including an outstandingly creepy face. We get back to the East Village for a standup comedy show at the Comedy Cellar, after which I return to my hotel. The room is windowless, but large and quiet, and I immediately crash.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Times Square


Times Square
Originally uploaded by Flasher T

Sunday, June 21, 2009

No Sleep At All

35,000 feet, somewhere over the Denmark Straight...

I wake up on Saturday morning, at an uncharacteristically early 7am. It's travel time. I pack a rucksack and grab my nightgame gear, then hop in the lolcar and set out for Tallinn. First time on the freeway of death in the new car, and I have to say, it's surprisingly comfortable at higher speeds. I was worried about the short-wheelbase Puma's stability, but the sportscar suspension is doing the trick: it feels great.

I go see a movie. It's the new Russel Crowe one, State of Play; reminds me of that old Michael Keaton/Glenn Close/Robert Duval journalist film. Ben Affleck is as useless as ever, but the movie is still good, and it makes two good points: a) journalists are still very much necessary, you can't just do opinion and commentary all the time, and b)being a jouralist has nothing to do with whether you write for the New York Times or a blog. I'm happy to see outside verification of what I've been saying for bloody years: technology does not fundamentally change human nature.

I meet up with an old friend, back briefly from Germany, then go into nightgame mode. Tallinn is drowning. The lolcar makes it from Lasnamäe to the Harku beach, becoming partially amphibian in the process. Since the two-door car isn't a good nightgame vehicle, I'm not driving this time; I get to spend more time looking for codes. I really enjoy the game; the team works together effectively, we never get bogged down on clues too much, our errors are not grave. We finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I just barely have time to change into cleaner clothes before catching the early flight to Amsterdam. I try sleeping on the plane, on the train to Rotterdam, and in the hotel itself, but I'm at that stage of sleep deprivation where I can't force myself to rest normally; the only option is to keep going until I crash. The weather clears up in the evening, and I go out into central Rotterdam.

Haven't been here in years. Rotterdam is patently not a toursit town, but it can still be fascinating. Most of it was levelled in WWII (probably has something to do with it being the world's biggest port back then, only recently overtaken by Shanghai), and ever since then the locals have been putting a huge amount of thought and effort into architectural design. I've only ever seen one other city with genuinely interesting skyscrapers - San Diego.

I'm in Rotterdam for the conclusion of the Th!nk About It project. It's a lot of fun, seeing the awesome people again, and the venue is fantastic. We're staying in the ART Hotel, an 80s-looking tower with outstanding views of the rain-soaked skyline; the party itself is just across the street, at the Maassilo, a giant warehouse converted into a "creative workshop". I can definitely imagine some really great gigs happening at the venue on the 10th floor. It's sunless, but highly impressive, in an authentically industrial way. Reminds me of Tallinn's Rock Cafe a bit.

Everyone is reluctant to discuss the upcoming award ceremony. Julien Frisch mentions that he doesn't think the project should have been a competition for prizes to begin with, but I disagree. The EJC have done a good job setting up the contest: out of 80 bloggers, 25 will get iPhones, and the overall winner - an iMac. Regular AnTyx readers (and those following my facebook) will be familiar with my views on Apple products, but I won't for a second deny that the iPhone is eminently desirable. The prize structure is such that you're not demotivated by the other bloggers posting great articles, and I know for a fact that I would not have put as much effort into some of my entries if I didn't see a realistic chance of getting the prize.

I knew I wouldn't get near first place, I just wouldn't put in the necessary research effort, but I do expect to be in the top quarter. They announce the Quality category first, the 20 authors whose writing was best, using proper blogging technologies and finding relevant aspects of the European Parliament elections to cover. My name doesn't come up. I'm surprised at how much I care; I'm not normally this competitive and I haven't been drooling over the iPhone either. The host, Raymond Frenken from EUX.TV, announces the remaining Impact category, and I'm one of the five winners. I'm having trouble believing how delirious I am at that. The Impact blogs are the ones which were not only interesting, but meaningful. Because fewer people were in this category, I choose to view it as a higher achievement, and become a bit of an asshole. Nevermind; Mingus is angry at me for flaunting my achievement (he also owns a black MacBook Pro, so is not pleased with my incredulous twitters of frustration while setting up the iPhone back at home), but I think that's wrong. There is so much useless bullshit in this world that people are unjustly proud of. Boasting is in our nature. My placement in the EJC competition is the result of doing the best job I could, and I have every right to be proud of that. By the same token, I encourage others to flaunt personal achievement. You deserve it.

I stop over in Utrecht for lunch with another friend, and travel home via Schiphol and Copenhagen. There's a fair amount of Estonians on the AMS-CPH flight, and the connecting Estonian Air flight gets a thorough check in Tallinn by sniffer dogs. I giggle.

It's nearly midnight, but I pick up the lolcar and head for Tartu. I've got a busy couple of days, with a bunch of work to complete before my vacation starts. I hand the car over to Info-Auto for a thorough service, including a cambelt change. It's an odd sensation, knowing more about your car than the dealer; they insist that the Puma's 1.7VCT engine only needs a cambelt change once every ten years, but I know that Ford retroactively changed it to 5, and have confirmed it via the Ford online service guide. They eventually find the change I'm talking about; nevertheless, they still didn't get all the parts delivered in time for the job (two weeks' notice!). The clerk asks about the mileage. The Puma has a five-digit trip counter, so it's probably 113 thousand kilometers, but could be 213 thousand. The clerk says they should do a 210 thousand service, but the new oil sticker says the next oil change is at 145000 km, so the mechanics obviously didn't agree. They put in fully synthetic oil; this engine is originally rated for semi-synth, and some reports from Puma owners suggest that full-synth will wear down the special Yamaha bits in the 1.7 (which is a Puma exclusive and not the same as other Ford engines). I get angry at the dealer, go home and look it up on the Puma owners' club website; it's probably fine, but overall I'm still not happy with the service I got from the dealer. The independents, like the Säästuteenindus thing where I got the lolcar's suspension serviced, try harder and charge less.

Finally it's Friday. I check my luggage (inevitably forgetting one thing, though thankfully it's inconsequential), get on the bus and go to Tallinn. Can't wait for the Tartu airport to get direct air service to Stockholm.

The 1pm flight is on Estonian Air Regional. I just saw that EA has a twitter, and it claims that the airline is actually among the best in Europe for punctuality and regularity; though that's defined as the percentage of flights that departed within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, and is of little solace when you spend 6 hours in Stockholm-Arlanda, or seven in Keflavik. The little Saab turboprop is late on this occasion, due to a crew change; the flight attendant hands out free drinks and sandwiches, which I haven't seen EA Proper do for... well, ever. I flew EA to Brussels and Amsterdam as well, and those flights were right on time, and even though the Saab was noisy and vibrated like a bastard, I enjoyed the flight. Maybe EA is getting better after all.

I spend the rest of the day in Stockholm. I've been here so many times before that it's not really exciting any more, but I still like the city. It's like an old friend, you've heard all his best drinking stories and shared your own, but you can still just show up and hang out. In a way, Stockholm is a pressure chamber, letting me adjust to NYC. I've been reading the latest Iain M. Banks novel, and it occurs to me that this city is in some ways like the Culture: wealthy but tolerant, taking in people of various other civilizations and instilling them with its own value set. And in the heart of a subcontinent where ostentation is unethical, Stockholm is a city that challenges you to express yourself.

I spend the night in the Jumbo Hostel, which is cheap, cool, and has free WiFi. I swap the stationary 747 for a functional one. Someone in my blogroll once mentioned that Malaysian Airlines is the best way to get from Europe to North America, because their planes are kitted out for ultra-long-haul habitation; neither Mingus nor Rikken will admit to saying it, but there is truth to the assertion. The in-flight entertainment system is extensive, the legroom is generous, and the staff are extremely nice. My seat is a non-window window seat, but since I only paid 5000 EEK for the return flight - including all the taxes - I'm not going to complain too loudly.

The East Coast awaits.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Th!nk About It Grand Finale in Rotterdam

Yours truly in some background shots. :)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

102 509

I'm not jumping for joy, but the EP election results are... satisfactory.

Tarand's recently best known for the whole "kommarid ahju" debacle, so he definitely seems in dire need of this on his wall; but he won't do much damage as an independent in Brussels, and as a wake-up call to the major parties to get their fingers out, we could all do much worse.

For what it's worth, I don't buy the 40,000 EEK line; I saw his campaign ad at a movie theater, and that can't be cheap. But if he seems arrogant, it's because he has every right to be.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Still Unconvinced

The conclusion of the Th!nk About It project. Check out the video at the bottom, it's hilarious, a much better execution of stereotypes than that "Union of Subsidized Farmers" crap.

Comments on that page please.

FWIW I'm going to vote for IRL; I'm not a huge fan of anyone, but at least I can respect Tunne Kelam for bothering to hang out at Tartu's main footbridge at 9am on a Thursday, handing out free coffee to passersby. (The coffee is horrible, but I did score a rather cute EPP-ED bottle opener.)

Friday, May 22, 2009

Epic *Facepalm*

As of yesterday, Estonia has a minority government. The Social Democrats are out, and the Reform-IRL axis is scrambling to work out a deal with Rahvaliit to get the necessary majority in the Riigikogu. Otherwise they will not be able to ensure that any of their measures get approved by the legislature; with SDE thoroughly ticked off and the Centrists naturally uncooperative, there is a very good chance that Ansip and Laar will not be able to get things done on their own.

By themselves, Reform+IRL have 50 seats, which is just one short of a plain majority in the 101-seat parliament. They could try to court the one independent candidate, Jaan Kundla, who left the Centrist fraction but didn't resign. I don't know much about him; his Wikipedia entry mentions a relatively modest assortment of scandals and no specific political leanings. He could probably be persuaded by the two big political parties, and I'm sure they're considering that option. The guy is also over 70 years old, which raises an interesting point: if he dies, who gets to replace him? Somebody from the party on whose list he got elected? Somebody from his constituency?

The most likely new coalition partner is Rahvaliit, the farmers' party. Their former leader, Villu Reiljan, was just convicted in a corruption case from his stint as minister in the previous government - he took bribes to arrange unusually profitable land-exchange deals. (If you own a piece of land whose use is restricted by nature reserves or some such thing, you could give it to the state, and get a piece of unrestricted state land in return. A reasonable system in theory, but people close to Reiljan were apparently exchanging swamps in Lahemaa for zoned plots in downtown Tallinn.) Last I heard, Reiljan hasn't resigned because he's still looking for an appeal and won't be forced to leave the parliament until that's done. But, assuming that he's on his way out, this would be a good opportunity for Rahvaliit to clean house and try to claw back some credibility.

A complete change of government is unlikely. As much as everyone is sick of Ansip's cabinet, pigs will fly before there is a stable alliance of Centrists, Social Democrats, Greens, farmers and that one independent.

Meanwhile the SDE ministers have been having fun on their way out the door. A few days ago, KAPO (the internal special service) arrested a top police official who is a close personal friend of Ansip. KAPO is part of the Interior Ministry, controlled by SDE's Jüri Pihl. As the papers pointed out, it's not likely to be a witch hunt and KAPO surely has enough good evidence, but one does wonder if Pihl wasn't keeping his men on a short leash to maintain good relations with his coalition partners. Ivari Padar, the SDE leader and also a top minister, had publically stated that he would be resigning after the Europarliament elections one way or the other. The Prime Minister was not amused by the theatrics, it seems.

The rump cabinet is still trying to keep to the Euro accession criteria, and it's getting a bit preposterous. I remember Padar going on TV and saying that he was absolutely sure that the initial budget cuts would be more than enough to stick to the Maastricht parameters. Now we've had another round of cuts, and even more may be necessary. The unemployment benefits muddle is still unresolved, but the premium has gone up. There's also new excise rates on fuel (about 2 eurocents per liter) and alcohol/tobacco. Childbirth benefits are likely to be cut. Student loan payments in government agencies have been stopped.

As much as I'd like Estonia to join the Eurozone, I'm unconvinced. The problems of a poor economy will not be solved by raising taxes, at least not in a flat-tax country like ours; the problem isn't that the government isn't getting enough money, it's that the people aren't earning any. We need public works, government subsidies for innovative and practical exporting businesses, investment in education and infrastructure. If we won't hit the Maastricht criteria before the crisis is over - and if the debt burden of the big Eurozone economies makes the future of the Euro seem unsteady as it is - then sod it. Let's take out loans and spend them on long-term stuff, like power stations and shale-to-fuel reprocessing factories. And if we're doomed, let's at least go out in a blaze of glory.

The government's actions are predicated on the assumption that once we join the Euro, it will all be rainbows and unicorns. I don't know that they're necessarily wrong, but I do know that they haven't done a good enough job of convincing me.

As for the coalition... anyone who's been paying attention will know that I have no love for Savisaar, quite the opposite. But in these desperate times, what I would really love to see is a national unity government.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I need more friends. My current set is cool, but not nearly social enough - among other things, most of them tend to be students who either can't afford to go out much, or have class in the morning. The others have small children and can't stay out long. What's a single 25-year-old to do?

So what the hell, let's try to get something tangible out of this whole blogging thing. Google Analytics tells me there have been over 200 visits to antyx.net from Tartu in the last month. A bunch of those will be people I know already, but some may not be, and more might have the blog feed in RSS.

So if you're in Tartu, and you've been reading the blog and think I'm a half-way interesting person, give me a shout at antyx@antyx.net. I'll buy you a beer.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory Still Holds


The Mazda RX-8 was launched in the early 00s, and at the time, I really thought it was close to the perfect car. It was a rear-wheel drive sports coupe, looked really good, and was relatively practical; in fact there was an ad campaign for it saying that if you tried hard, you could actually justify it to your spouse as a family car.

I liked it so much at the time that I made myself a promise. Obviously I couldn't even come close to affording the RX-8, but others bought them, and of course new cars depreciate rapidly - especially expensive sportscars from non-prestigious brands. I told myself that when I was 25 - which seemed like a long way away - I would buy one. Even if it was used. Even if I would have to pay it off until I was 30.

I turned 25 a little less than two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the RX-8 has a serious flaw. Its engine is unusual, a completely different engineering solution to regular piston motors. It's called a rotary engine, or a Wankel after the German who invented it. I won't go into detail, but basically it is smaller and lighter than a piston engine, but produces more power. The downside is that because of some inherent problems with Wankel's design, it's not terribly reliable. Reports from RX-8 owners suggest that the engine tends to break down catastrophically after 100,000km, even with careful maintenance. If the RX-8 had come with a regular engine, such as Mazda's 2.3-liter turbo from the MPS line of cars, it would be perfect; but it doesn't. An RX-8 that has done around 30,000km costs about twelve thousand Euro in Estonia today; not completely outside the realms of my budget, but not the sort of money I'd feel comfortable spending on an inherently unreliable machine, despite the fact that I don't drive that much. (My current car has done around 25,000km in two and a half years, and the bulk of that has been on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway.)

However, I would still like to keep the promise to myself. And it appears that the Estonian Volkswagen dealer got an unusually large shipment of the new Sciroccos. Now, I like the Scirocco: it looks good, and it's based on the VW Golf GTI, which is considered one of the most fun cars this side of something fundamentally impractical. (People who write for car magazines have repeatedly stated that on real-world roads, a Golf GTI will certainly be able to keep up with a Ferrari.) In Estonia, today, VW will sell you a Scirocco with all the equipment you need for less than 20,000 Euro. For a car in this class, that's bloody cheap, and VWs keep their value quite well as used cars, and hey, my mortgage interest rate dropped like a brick in April, didn't it?



I was in Tallinn this Friday on other business anyway, so I went to the main VW dealership and test-drove the Scirocco. The one they had was the top-end model, with the turbocharged engine and DSG gearbox - the best automatic gearbox in the world right now, by general consensus of people who know about these things.

My first reaction was that I was right to aim for the cheapest model, with the less powerful 1.4 twin-charged engine (which is still powerful enough to force me to contribute to Estonia's ailing budget), and manual gearbox. I've had the argument with Mingus, who dismisses the common argument of manuals giving better control, because with an automatic you always have both hands on the steering wheel - and that's safer. Honestly, I can't refute it, and the DSG was really awesome. I simply enjoy driving a stick shift more.

But honestly, even while I drove the Scirocco down the back roads of Tabasalu, I couldn't feel it. I wasn't experiencing that wonder, that sense of do want that I would need to justify the purchase. I spent over eight thousand kroons on my little aluminium HP laptop, which was more than the competition, and I didn't strictly need it - but the satisfaction from owning something genuinely awesome was worth it.

It's the same thing, every time I drive a new car. It's great, sure, but it's not mind-boggling; it's not an order of magnitude better than whatever I am driving myself at the time. I had the same experience with a Suzuki Grand Vitara, back when I had a 1988 Honda Accord; the Suzuki was quiet and comfortable, but dog-slow in comparison. Modern cars are just too heavy to take advantage of the power, and neither do they have the ability to filter out the imperfections of our roads - certainly they don't provide the difference to match the price increase compared to a ten-year-old car. Yes, a new one will be more reliable - but, if you choose your ride carefully, a used one will not be more expensive to run than the maintenance costs of something that still has to be serviced at the dealership to keep the warranty.

It's odd that, for such a gearhead, I am having such trouble getting properly excited about something as nice as the new Scirocco.

----
PS. The guy I talked to at the dealership was a real pleasure. Friendly, active and competent. I feel like an asshole for deciding against the Scirocco, so if you're looking for a new car these days and have been disappointed with the customer service levels at most dealerships, go to Saksa Auto Pluss in Tartu (corner of Aardla and Ringtee) and ask for Allan Ainson. And I think there are some really good discounts on most VW models these days.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lazy Person's Vote

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

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

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Self-Made?

From a forum discussion... I reaffirmed my long-held belief that while there are aspects of a society that must be managed centrally and provided universally - such as healthcare, education etc. - the state's involvement should be limited to safety nets, ensuring minimum sustenance, but certainly not a comfortable living standard. Society is not obligated to support those who choose not to contribute, and highly developed welfare states do tend to produce that type of mentality, at least in some parts of the population.

The inevitable and, I'll admit, reasonable response to that was, Hardly surprising that an economically self sufficient 20-something with a high disposable income thinks that, is it?

Uh-huh, but I grew up as the child of a newspaper editor in a postsoviet economy. I'm not a trustafarian, so I get to say things like that.

Wow, you really don't have any idea how privileged you are, do you? You actually earned everything you have on your own accord?

I was lucky enough to be born in a country that became part of the Western world within my lifetime. Other than that - my education was paid for by the state (which is why I consistently say that education should be state-sponsored), and my healthcare costs were covered by the state as well (and I absolutely believe that universal healthcare is a non-negotiable human right).

My parents supported me in university, but didn't completely pay my way - I worked starting from the second semester until I graduated. I have never claimed any sort of unemployment benefit from the state. I got a state-sponsored cheap student loan, which is a system that I like and recommend, but it wasn't vital. I got my job by putting up a CV on a website, it had nothing to do with family connections or university old-boy networking (but, I suppose, everything to do with living in a country whose government found a way to attract massive amounts of foreign direct investment). My apartment was bought using inheritance as a down payment, but I'm covering the mortgage.

So - a question to both regular readers and people who know me in real life - exactly how hypocritical am I?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

City of Seg-- wait, what?


Lazyness
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Let me tell you something. Tartu is not a big city. I was drinking at a friend's house on Monday night and took a cab home, then on Tuesday I walked from home to work, and then from work to the friend's house to pick up my car. This was not a hugely strenuous walk (and I live fairly far from downtown). You almost never really need a car in Tartu; and you certainly never need a Segway.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Apathy is Not a Bug, It's a Feature

A lot more happy with this one. Hopefully it's worth reading, at least.

As usual, comments over there please.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The anti-iPhone


17/04/2009
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Ironic geekster prop to take the piss out of the glamour set. (Mind you, I still have my ultra-hi-tech N85...)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

New TAI post. Not my best work, but should count as an EP-themed entry for the month.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

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

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Do Want, Assorted

It's spring and the gadgets are coming. HP has finally released the HD-screen version of the 2140, and I want it. I've got a 2133 right now, as long-time readers might remember; it's by far the best notebook on the market in terms of build quality, and has an excellent keyboard that I have typed very long texts on. The trouble with the 2133 is its dog-slow CPU. The 2140 has an Atom CPU, which means it's faster and lasts longer on the same battery. It also has a larger screen, in the same outer casing. Up until now the screen they offered was a meager 1024x576, but the new one is 1366x768 (same pixel count as the 2133, but 10.1" instead of 8.9").

I just tried the configurator on HP's website and a 2140 with the HD screen, six-cell battery, 2gb RAM and a 7200rpm hard drive came out to $684 (sans Windows). That's less than I paid for my 2133 a year ago, and it's the top hardware they have. The 2140 is even available in Estonia; let's hope they get the HD model in stock soon.

Meanwhile, I keep drooling over cameras. The Sigma SP2 is what compact cameras should have become ages ago: a really good sensor in a small body. It has no optical zoom, but it shoots in RAW mode, so at 14mp you can just crop to taste. Still, it costs $649, and ultimately I don't need all those megapixels; what compact cameras really need is a very, very good 2mp sensor. (How many photos have you printed in poster-size, in your life?)

This should appear in Europe soonish as the Canon 500D. It's the 50D's sensor in a 450D body. Desirable for a second, but ultimately I will probably have to wait for Micro Four Thirds cameras to drop in price. I need a tilt-screen, and the entire SLR concept is useless for digital cameras; its point was to show the same image in the viewfinder that would be captured on film, but now you can just export the signal from the sensor to the LCD, before it gets captured in full detail. Micro Four Thirds keeps the high-quality sensor and swapping optics of DSLRs, without the extraneous bullshit, and in a smaller package. Since there are companies making adapters that let you fit standard Nikon/Canon lenses to MFC bodies, that's definitely the way to go. Until then, there are things my Canon SX10 can do that I still haven't learned to use properly.

By the way: the keyboard on my N85 broke and became unglued. Apparently it's a common problem, a design flaw. I like the hardware on the N85, but the build quality is atrocious compared to the 6500C I had before, and the phone itself is a lot more expensive. So while I'm waiting for Tele2 and Nokia's warranty to get back to me, I've ordered an Ericsson T39 off eBay. 344 EEK including shipping, and two batteries. It's old, and it's eminently cool.

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