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.

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