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.


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