Friday, August 31, 2007

Sison Arrest Protest + Jalandoni

Luis Jalandoni, chairman of the National Democratic Front, despised by the Philippine government.

The protest against the arrest of former (current?) Philippine communist rebel leader Jose Maria Sison today on the Dam was a little surreal.

At the heart of the Dutch capital city, you have a small group of leftists who feel a great injustice has been done by the government of the Netherlands.

On the other side of the world, in the Philippines, the government is celebrating Sison´s arrest, and the rebels there are, well, up in arms.

Meanwhile, Amsterdam rolls on, and you have tourists wandering around the scene, completely oblivious to it all.

Even a scrawny Darth Vader had to turn around to see what was going on.

I've stumbled across a few protests in my day and wondered what the heck they were all about. I certainly can't claim to be an expert on the 39 year (that's "thirty-nine") communist rebellion in the Philippines. It predates me.

I can tell you that whatever else Sison (who I met in 2005) and Jalandoni may be, they are both intellectuals.

This energetic young speaker,

Chico Taguba, of "Rice and Rights," represents the next generation of activists.

"As long as there is oppression, there will always be resistance," he said.

N´est pas?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

MabelGate Redux, Thanks to WikiScanner

UPDATE: The IHT has the official story. I wudn't have posted this blog entry if I thought AP wanted it...


Original post:

Ah, it warms my heart to see 1,000 scandals bloom. The new Wikiscanner, created by some young genius at CalTech, can be used to trace the IP address of any computer that makes changes to Wikipedia, revealing bad-acting editors around the world.

It has already shamed WalMart, the CIA, the BBC, the Australian government, and now Mabel Wisse Smit, known to the Dutch media primarily for "Mabelgate."

Mabel was set to marry Prince Friso, which would have put the couple and their spawn second in line to the Dutch throne after Friso's big brother Willem Alexander and his brood.

But after a television program by crime reporter Peter Paul "Tintin" De Vries unearthed details of her college relationship with a known drugs baron (Klaas Bruinsma, who stopped smoking in 1991), the prime minister said he couldn't sign off on the marriage because the pair had given him "incomplete and incorrect information."

They ended up getting married in 2004 anyway, but had to relinquish any claim to the throne.

The Wikipedia entry on "Mabelgate" reported what they gave the prime minister Balkenende as "incomplete and false information," but the entry was changed twice to remove the word "false" by a computer whose IP address can now be traced to a Dutch palace. Whoops.

The couple quickly 'fessed up. Not much point in denying changing your Wikipedia entry when you've already confessed to misleading the prime minister...

I think there's much, much more dirt where this came from. Better dirt too, though of course falsifying a Wikipedia entry is not a crime.

What Dutch corporations and or institutions are likely to have changed their entries? I can think of about a dozen...

What about, say, Trafigura? Not purely a hypothetical idea. I'm open to suggestions...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Noah's Ark

Noah's Ark sailed through Amsterdam last night, and I went out to practice my photo-taking chops. You never know when it's going to come in handy.

Let me tell you, taking night photos is not easy: if you use the flash, it looks like day, and if you use a slow shutter speed, the image blurs.

But I guess the photographers out there already know this.

Oh yeah, I didn't misspeak. Noah's Ark: an earlier story.

(note plastic giraffe sticking up from prow).

Johan Huibers, a man of energy and vision. The live animals never materialized, but I thought this story deserved more attention than it got. AP tried again, but it still never really caught on...


Monday, August 27, 2007


(photo by Flickr user Jonnybaker)

The AP has a story on happiness, via USA today, complete with inappropriate photo provided by Agence France Press.

Whatever sells papers...

Follow this, if you can. Does money matter?

Wealth counts, but most studies of individuals show income disparities count more. Surprisingly, however, citizens are no happier in welfare states, which strive to mitigate the distortions of capitalism than in purer free-market economies.

"In the beginning, I didn't believe my eyes," said Veenhoven of his data. "Icelanders are just as happy as Swedes, yet their country spends half what Sweden does (per capita) on social welfare," he said.

To me, the most surprising thing is that kids don't help happiness. That makes me wonder about whether there's any real science to these methodologies.

(Photo by Flickr user Photoplasia).

U.S. researchers have found other underlying factors: married people are more content than singles, but having children does not raise happiness levels; education and IQ seem to have little impact; attractive people are only slightly happier than the unattractive; the elderly — over 65 — are more satisfied with their lives than the young; friendships are crucial.

But the research also shows that many people are simply disposed to being either happy or disgruntled, and as much as 50% of the happiness factor is genetic. Like body weight, moods can swing only so much from their natural "set point."

So can you do anything about it? Some educators say you can.

Color me, at least in private, a skeptic.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

UNDP - Melkert - Whistleblower

The U.N. / North Korea / Ad Melkert / Whistle-blower /"Cash for Kim" saga rolls on, as the UNDP calls for an external investigation into whether the whistleblower was wrongly fired. (Story by the AP's U.N. correspondent via the IHT here).

The Dutch connection is that Ad Melkert, the man in charge at UNDP's now defunct North Korea aid program, is a former Dutch politician, and the Netherlands was the agency's single top funder in 2006, giving in excess of $100 million. The North Korea program was canceled in March, in the wake of NK's nuke test blunder, and after Pyongyang refused to follow UNDP's newly enforced official guidelines for aid. The UNDP handed out a grand total of $2.6 million in Pyongyang over the past 5 years.

Key quote from IHT:

When he asked what to do with counterfeit U.S. dollars he found in the office safe on his first day in Pyongyang in November 2004, (whistle-blowing accountant Artjon) Shkurtaj told AP last month he never got a response. And when he complained that paying all North Korean salaries and program expenses in hard currency instead of local currency was against U.N. rules, he said he was told "not to rock the boat."

Shkurtaj said UNDP rules require that counterfeit money be reported to the embassy of the country involved, and since it was U.S. dollars he went to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations when he returned to New York in May 2006. He said (UNDP Administrator Kemal) Dervis and Associate Administrator Ad Melkert told him "they disliked that I went to the U.S. government and reported the counterfeit."

When Shkurtaj's contract ended on March 26, 2007, it was not renewed.

My earlier blog entry on why there's no love lost between Ad Melkert and the Bush administration here.
In sum, some say the administration blames Melkert and the Dutch for Paul Wolfowitz's ouster from the World Bank.

I noticed that on Friday the Dutch government put out a large amount of information in two separate answers to questions put to the Development Minister Bert Koenders by members of parliament.

The Q&A is so long and punishingly boring (repeating every detail of the history of the case) that it's killing to try to read it (especially after midnight on the final weekend of my vacation), but probably it would be of interest to some people if it were published in English.

Well, I'll post the entire thing in Dutch at the bottom but I certainly don't have the heart or time to translate it all.

Among other things, Koenders characterizes Dervis as the chairman of the UNDP, and Melkert as the CEO, in charge of day to day operations.

Some other Koenders quotes:

"On May 31, an initial accountants report was published, carried out by the U.N.'s independent board of auditors (France, South Africa and the Philippines)...
The conclusion was that UNDP in 2002-2006 in a number of respects departed from its normal manner of working, given that local staff were delivered by the North Korean government...salaries were paid in 'hard' currencies (in connection with the high inflation of local currency) and visits to projects were only possible with permission and under observation of NK gov't bureaucrats."

Koenders goes on to say this was basically inevitable given the conditions in North Korea. He also says there's no evidence money ended up where it wasn't supposed to be.


"There's still no clear answer to the question whether it's true that a part of the aid money got through to the North Korean regime. The Netherlands has therefore pushed for a second, broader investigation. UNDP has agreed to put forward a proposal to this end at the upcoming Operating Council meeting of 10-14 September."

On the key question of the Whistle-blower's firing, there's not much added:

"Artjon Shkutaj was in the service of the UNDP office in NK on the basis of various temporary contracts from Nov. 2004 to March 2007. His last contract...was not renewed. Mr. Shkurtaj filed a complaint ... blah blah blah ... asking for whistle-blower protection (initially rejected). On Aug. 21, it became known that the (U.N.) Ethics Bureau has advised implementing a further investigation in this case because at first glance, (his dismissal) could be said to appear to involve a 'payback' (for whistleblowing). In their reactions, The Secretary General and the UNDP said that they will follow that advice. The Netherlands supports this."

The Dutch:

Graag bied ik u hierbij de antwoorden aan op de schriftelijke vragen gesteld
door het lid Van Bommel over het UNDP-programma in Noord-Korea en de rol van de
heer Melkert hierbij. Deze vragen werden ingezonden op 30 juli 2007 met kenmerk

De minister voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking,
Bert Koenders

Antwoorden van de heer Koenders, minister voor
Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, op vragen van het
lid Van Bommel
(SP) over de heer Melkert en de klokkenluider
van de UNDP

Vraag 1
Wat is uw reactie op het artikel “Ad Melkert en de klokkenluider”? 1)

Vraag 3
Hoe beziet u het rapport van de onderzoekscommissie rondom het ‘cash-for-Kim’
schandaal en de reactie van de heer Melkert hierop? Bent u van mening dat het
een gedegen onderzoek betrof? Kunt u in uw antwoord ingaan op het feit dat de
onderzoekers zelf niet in Pyongyang zijn geweest, alsmede het feit dat de
informatie die was verstrekt niet geverifieerd kon worden?

De Board of Auditors (rapport van 31 mei jl.) had opdracht om in het
initiële onderzoek in te gaan op een drietal kwesties: uitbetaling van
salarissen in buitenlandse valuta, inhuur van lokale staf via de Noord-Koreaanse
overheid, en toegang tot projecten. Het onderzoek was derhalve beperkt in omvang
en opzet, zoals is toegelicht door de Board of Auditors zelf in
hoofdstuk 2 van het rapport.

De Board of Auditors is van plan op korte termijn naar Noord-Korea
af te reizen om de tweede fase van de accountantscontrole uit te voeren.

Ik heb eveneens kennisgenomen van de reactie van UNDP (management
response van 1 juni jl.). Voor nadere informatie terzake zou ik u willen
verwijzen naar mijn antwoord op de vragen van het lid Boekestijn (nr. 206072214

Zodra de VS in januari jl. Nederland informeerde over aanwijzingen te
beschikken dat VN-hulpgelden in Noord-Korea bij het regime terecht zouden zijn
gekomen, heeft Nederland bij UNDP aangedrongen op diepgaand, onafhankelijk
onderzoek. Het onderzoeksrapport van de Board of Auditors geeft
weliswaar inzicht in de drie hierboven genoemde kwesties, doch er is nog steeds
geen duidelijk antwoord gekomen op de vraag of het klopt dat een deel van de
hulpgelden bij het Noord-Koreaanse regime terecht zijn gekomen. Nederland heeft
daarom aangedrongen op een aanvullend, breder opgezet onderzoek. UNDP heeft
toegezegd een voorstel hiertoe voor te leggen aan de komende Uitvoerende Raad
van 10-14 september (UR; bestaande uit vertegenwoordigers van de VN-lidstaten).

Vraag 4
Kunt u aangeven of de onderzoeksmethode waarvan gebruik is gemaakt door de UNDP
in Noord-Korea vaker gehanteerd wordt door de UNDP bij vermeende misstanden? Zo
ja, welke landen c.q. kwesties betrof dit? Bent u van mening dat dit bijdraagt
aan een open en transparante organisatie van de Verenigde Naties?

UNDP en -in meer algemene zin- de VN beschikken over meerdere methoden van
toezicht, monitoring, controle en evaluatie. VN-lidstaten, waaronder Nederland,
beoordelen deze toezichtmethoden als adequaat en in lijn met hetgeen in
internationale organisaties, maar ook bij overheden en bedrijven, gebruikelijk
is. Zo worden alle fondsen en programma’s van de VN (waaronder UNDP) standaard
iedere 1 à 2 jaar onderzocht door externe accountants. Deze rapporten en
aanbevelingen worden jaarlijks aan de Algemene Vergadering van de VN (AVVN)
voorgelegd, waarbij alle lidstaten inzicht kunnen krijgen in de bevindingen.
Daarnaast vinden veelvuldig interne audits plaats.

Het onderhavige onderzoek is uitgevoerd door de Board of Auditors
(BoA). De BoA, die in 1946 is ingesteld door de Verenigde Naties, voert externe
audits uit voor de VN-programma’s, agentschappen en fondsen. Deze onafhankelijke
Board of Auditors bestaat uit de hoofden van auditdiensten van drie
lidstaten van de VN, die elke twee jaar voor een periode van 6 jaar worden
gekozen door de AVVN. De BoA rapporteert via het Advisory Committee on
Administrative and Budgetary Questions (ACABQ) bevindingen en aanbevelingen
aan de AVVN.

Deze ACABQ heeft, op verzoek van UNDP en de Secretaris-Generaal van de VN, in
februari 2007 het verzoek gedaan aan de BoA om een speciale audit uit te voeren
naar de activiteiten van UNDP (United Nations Development Programme),
UNFPA (UN Population Fund), UNOPS (UN Office for Project
Services) en UNICEF (UN Children’s Fund) in Noord-Korea, met
speciale aandacht voor transacties in buitenlandse valuta, inhuur van staf en
toegang tot projecten.

De BoA verricht circa 30 onderzoeken per jaar, veelal regulier, soms naar
aanleiding van specifieke onderzoeksbehoeften of vermeende misstanden. De meeste
onderzoeken worden openbaar gemaakt. Zo is het onderzoek inzake het
UNDP-programma in Noord-Korea te vinden op de website van UNDP.

Vraag 2
Deelt u de opvatting dat de heer Melkert de facto hoofd van de UNDP is aangezien
Kemal Dervis zichzelf een ceremoniële rol heeft toebedacht? Zo neen, waarom

Op 1 maart 2006 trad de heer Melkert aan als “UN Under-Secretary-General and
Associate Administrator of UNDP”. De heer Dervis en de heer Melkert zijn een
onderlinge taakverdeling overeengekomen. Daarbij is de heer Dervis vooral
verantwoordelijk voor de VN-brede coördinatie van de ontwikkelingsactiviteiten
van de VN. De heer Melkert is als “Chief Operations Officer” verantwoordelijk
voor de dagelijkse operationele leiding van de organisatie.

Voor nadere informatie zou ik u willen verwijzen naar mijn antwoord op de
vragen van het lid Boekestijn van 30 juli jl. (nr. 2060722140).

1) Vrij Nederland, 28 juli 2007

Graag bied ik u hierbij de antwoorden aan op de schriftelijke vragen gesteld
door het lid Boekestijn over de aantijgingen aan het adres van de heer Melkert.
Deze vragen werden ingezonden op 30 juli 2007 met kenmerk 2060722140.

De minister voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking,
Bert Koenders

Antwoorden van de heer Koenders, minister voor
Ontwikkelingssamenwerking, op vragen van het lid Boekestijn (VVD) over
de aantijgingen aan het adres van de heer Melkert

Vraag 1
Is Nederland een (zeker verhoudingsgewijs) grote donor van de UNDP?

Ja. In 2006 was Nederland de grootste donor van het United Nations
Development Programme (UNDP), met een algemene vrijwillige bijdrage van €
90 mln. Daarnaast werd in 2006 door Nederlandse ambassades €27 mln. toegekend
aan UNDP-landenprogramma’s, en werd €81 mln. beschikbaar gesteld voor
thematische fondsen (o.a. voor vredesopbouw en versterking van de positie van
vrouwen). In 2007 is Nederland de tweede donor van UNDP (na Noorwegen), met een
algemene vrijwillige bijdrage van €92 mln.

Vraag 2
Wat heeft de Nederlandse regering ondernomen na de eerste berichten over
misstanden bij projecten van de UNDP in Noord-Korea, die onder
verantwoordelijkheid van de heer Melkert werden uitgevoerd?

Als VN-lidstaat en grote donor, hecht Nederland zeer veel belang aan
goede monitoring en controle inzake de besteding van ontwikkelingsfondsen; van
alle VN-organisaties, waar dan ook ter wereld. Nederland heeft derhalve deze
Noord-Korea kwestie van het begin af aan actief gevolgd. Er is sinds januari met
grote regelmaat overleg gevoerd met zowel UNDP als relevante VN-lidstaten, zoals
Denemarken (dit jaar voorzitter van de Uitvoerende Raad van UNDP), de VS, Japan
en belangrijke donorlanden als Noorwegen, het VK en Zweden. Nederland heeft
daarbij steeds aangedrongen op diepgaand onderzoek, door een onafhankelijke
partij, naar gestelde misstanden in Noord-Korea.

Vraag 3
Is bij deze projecten een bedrag van ca. 100 miljoen dollar

Vraag 4
Is via deze projecten het regime van de Noord-Koreaanse dictator Kim
Jong-Il gesteund?

Vraag 5
Indien bij deze UNDP-projecten in Noord-Korea geen grote bedragen zijn
zoekgeraakt en indien het regime van Kim Jong-Il niet is ondersteund, wat was er
dan wel mis bij deze projecten?

Vraag 6
Wat wordt door de Nederlandse regering ondernomen naar aanleiding van
beschuldigingen door de voormalige VN-medewerker Artjon Shkurtaj dat het bij de
genoemde projecten in Noord-Korea onduidelijk was waar het geld terecht kwam
omdat er contant geld werd betaald zonder ontvangstbewijzen?

Vraag 8
Bent u bereid te bevorderen dat de VN een onafhankelijk onderzoek
instelt naar de projecten die door de UNDP in Noord-Korea zijn uitgevoerd, naar
de wijze waarop daarbij UNDP-gelden zijn besteed, naar het ontslag van de heer
Artjon Shkurtaj en naar de verantwoordelijkheden van VN-bestuurders met
betrekking tot deze zaken?

Vraag 9
Bent u bereid de Nederlandse bijdrage aan de UNDP op te schorten indien
de VN weigert een dergelijk onafhankelijk onderzoek in te stellen? 1)

Aangezien de Noord-Koreaanse bevolking het afgelopen decennium zwaar
heeft geleden onder structurele hongersnood, heeft de internationale gemeenschap
de afgelopen tien jaar voor honderden miljoenen aan voedselhulp gedoneerd, voor
het overgrote deel via het World Food Programme van de Verenigde
Naties. De afgelopen vijf jaar is uit UNDP-middelen - met goedkeuring van de
Uitvoerende Raad (UR; bestaande uit vertegenwoordigers van de VN-lidstaten) -
gemiddeld 2,6 mln. US dollar per jaar beschikbaar gesteld voor on
twikkelingsactiviteiten in Noord-Korea. Het UNDP-programma bestond voo
rnamelijk uit capaciteitsopbouw, met als belangrijk doel de Noord-Koreaanse
afhankelijkheid van voedselhulp te verminderen. Daarnaast zette UNDP zich samen
met organisaties als UNICEF en de World Health Organisation in voor
meer onderwijsvoorzieningen en betere gezondheidszorg voor de Noord-Koreaanse

Op 14 oktober 2006 stelde de VN-Veiligheidsraad sancties in tegen Noord-Korea
in reactie op de Noord-Koreaanse kernproef. Verschillende leden van de
Uitvoerende Raad van UNDP, hierin gesteund door
Nederland1(#ftn1), waren van mening dat de sancties ook
gevolgen moesten hebben voor zowel de inhoud en opzet van het UNDP
landenprogramma in Noord-Korea als voor controle en toezicht op de implementatie
ervan. Daar kwam bij dat de VS in januari jl. mededeelde over aanwijzingen te
beschikken dat in de afgelopen tien jaar een deel van de VN-hulpgelden bij het
Noord-Koreaanse regime terecht was gekomen.

Na uitvoerige consultaties van UNDP-medewerkers met vertegenwoordigers van
VN-lidstaten tijdens de UNDP Uitvoerende Raad van 22-26 januari jl. stelde het
UNDP-management aan de UR voor om de volgende maatregelen te nemen ten aanzien
van het UNDP-landenprogramma Noord-Korea:

- het laten verrichten van een externe accountantscontrole;
- aanpassing van het programma door meer nadruk op humanitaire hulp in plaats
van ontwikkeling;
- geen betalingen meer in harde valuta;
- geen stafrecrutering meer via de overheid;
- alle uitvoering van programma’s zou voortaan door UNDP ter hand worden genomen
(en niets meer door de lokale overheid);
- versterking van monitoring en evaluatie, waaronder gegarandeerde onmiddellijke
toegang tot alle projecten.

Onder deze voorwaarden ging de UR akkoord met het voorgestelde
UNDP-landenprogramma Noord-Korea. Uiteindelijk bleek Noord-Korea echter niet
bereid het gehele pakket aan maatregelen te accepteren. Het UNDP-management
heeft vervolgens besloten het programma in Noord-Korea met ingang van 1 maart
jl. in zijn geheel op te schorten.

Op 31 mei jl. werd een eerste externe accountantscontrole gepubliceerd,
verricht door de onafhankelijke Board of Auditors van de VN (bestaande
uit de hoogste overheidscontroleurs van Frankrijk, Zuid-Afrika en de
Filippijnen). De conclusie van deze externe accountants is dat UNDP in de
periode 2002 t/m 2006 in een aantal opzichten van zijn standaard werkwijze is
afgeweken, aangezien lokale staf werd geleverd door de Noord-Koreaanse overheid
(overigens is de UR hier in 2001 over ingelicht), salarissen in harde valuta
werden uitbetaald (in verband met hoge inflatie van de lokale munt) en bezoek
van projecten alleen mogelijk was met toestemming en onder begeleiding van
Noord-Koreaanse overheidsfunctionarissen.

UNDP heeft op 1 juni jl. een reactie uitgebracht op het rapport. Hierin licht
UNDP toe dat in Noord-Korea gewerkt moest worden onder moeilijke en
uitzonderlijke omstandigheden, en dat daarom in in een aantal opzichten moest
worden afgeweken van gangbare procedures (waarbij volgens UNDP overigens geen
sprake is van handelen in strijd met interne regelgeving). Zo stelt UNDP dat de
positie van de lokale stafleden in Noord-Korea niet vergeleken kan worden met
die in andere landen, aangezien de staf in Noord-Korea formeel in dienst was van
de Noord-Koreaanse autoriteiten, en niet van UNDP. Voor wat betreft het inhuren
van staf via de overheid en het betalen van salarissen in harde valuta, stelt
UNDP dat dit in de Noord-Koreaanse context onontkoombaar was. UNDP voegt daaraan
toe dat alle in Noord-Korea aanwezige internationale organisaties (o.a. UNICEF,
WHO, WFP, UNFPA) en diplomatieke vertegenwoordigingen (o.a. Zweden) wat dit
betreft dezelfde praktijken volgen als UNDP. UNDP benadrukt dat er geen enkel
bewijs is dat hulpfondsen gebruikt zouden zijn voor andere doeleinden dan
waarvoor ze bestemd waren. UNDP heeft regelmatig bezoeken gebracht aan de
gefinancierde projecten en is daarbij nooit op substantiële onregelmatigheden
gestuit. De Noord-Koreaanse autoriteiten hebben nimmer toestemming geweigerd
voor dergelijke bezoeken. Dat UNDP bij die bezoeken altijd werd vergezeld door
een tolk en een voor het project verantwoordelijke overheidsfunctionaris is
vrijwel overal ter wereld gebruikelijk.

De Board of Auditors is van plan op korte termijn naar Noord-Korea
af te reizen om de tweede fase van de op 31 mei gepresenteerde
accountantscontrole uit te voeren. De onderzoeksvragen voor deze tweede fase
zijn aanzienlijk breder opgezet dan die van de eerste fase.

Toen duidelijk werd dat het op 31 mei gepresenteerde onderzoek van de
Board of Auditors te beperkt in omvang en opzet was om een duidelijk
antwoord te kunnen geven op de vraag of het klopt dat een deel van de
VN-hulpgelden bij het Noord-Koreaanse regime terecht is gekomen, heeft
Nederland, samen met gelijkgezinde VN-lidstaten, aangedrongen op een aanvullend,
breder opgezet extern onderzoek. Zowel de Secretaris-Generaal van de VN als UNDP
hebben het belang erkend van een dergelijk complementair onderzoek, teneinde
zeker te kunnen stelllen dat de VN-hulpfondsen in Noord-Korea daadwerkelijk bij
de noodlijdende bevolking terecht zijn gekomen. Nederland en de andere meest
betrokken VN-lidstaten hebben de afgelopen tijd vrijwel dagelijks overleg
gevoerd met UNDP om ervoor te zorgen dat dit onderzoek er zo snel mogelijk komt.

Dit heeft op 23 augustus geleid tot de presentatie van een voorstel van
Denemarken, de voorzitter van de Uitvoerende Raad van UNDP, voor een aanvullend
onderzoek door een team van vooraanstaande, internationaal zeer gerespecteerde
personen, die buiten het VN-systeem staan. Dit team zou voornamelijk onderzoek
moeten doen naar de volgende kwesties:

Nederland zal zich er samen met gelijkgezinden sterk voor maken dat de
aanstaande Uitvoerende Raad (10-14 september) het groene licht geeft voor dit
onderzoek. Voorts is Nederland bereid zonodig bij de Noord-Koreaanse
autoriteiten aan te dringen op het verlenen van medewerking aan het onderzoek.

Vraag 7
Wie is verantwoordelijk voor het ontslag van deze Artjon Shkurtaj, die
had gevraagd om de status van klokkenluider?

De heer Artjon (Tony) Shkurtaj was van november 2004 tot maart 2007 in
dienst van het UNDP-kantoor te Noord-Korea op basis van diverse tijdelijke
contracten. Zijn laatste contract, dat afliep in maart 2007, is niet opnieuw
verlengd door UNDP. De heer Shkurtaj heeft in juni jl. bij het Ethiek Bureau van
de VN bezwaar aangetekend tegen de niet-verlenging van zijn contract en verzocht
om toekenning van de beschermde status van klokkenluider. Op 21 augustus werd
bekend dat het Ethiek Bureau heeft geadviseerd nader onderzoek in te stellen in
deze zaak, omdat op het eerste gezicht sprake zou kunnen zijn van vergelding. In
hun reacties lieten de Secretaris-Generaal en UNDP weten dat het advies om
nader, extern onderzoek in te stellen, zal worden opgevolgd. Nederland steunt

1) Zie o.m. NOVA, 25 juli 2007, de Volkskrant, 25 juli 2007 en het Algemeen
Dagblad, 24 juli 2007.

Toelichting: deze vragen dienen ter aanvulling op vragen van
het lid Van Bommel (SP), ingezonden 30 juli 2007 (vraagnummer 2060722130)

1( I.v.m. een roulatieschema binnen de groep westerse landen is
Nederland dit jaar geen lid van de UR van UNDP. Echter, als tweede donor van
UNDP heeft Nederland een invloedrijke positie, ook al hebben we thans de status
van waarnemer. Overigens beschikken waarnemers over vrijwel dezelfde rechten als
leden als het gaat om het bijwonen van vergaderingen, spreekrecht e.d. Het
belangrijkste verschil in status is dat waarnemers geen stemrecht hebben. Dit
maakt in de praktijk echter niet veel uit, omdat in principe alle besluitvorming
o.b.v. consensus plaatsvindt.

De minister voor Ontwikkelingssamenwerking,
Bert Koenders


Friday, August 24, 2007

Tambourine Man

So. This time a highbrow look at the lyrics of one of those Dylan songs that you maybe kind of liked once, before you heard it played too many times.

Maybe you thought the lyrics were some annoying psychedelic BS but the song was okay, at least in the "Byrds" version, and who really cares about song lyrics anyway, right?

Well, I'd say, go ahead and hate "Tambourine Man" for being overplayed, but don't doubt this: the lyrics are getting at something very specific, and I think they're sublime once you understand what it is.


Here's my close reading:

Dylan is asking the one who really makes the music _ call him The Tambourine Man, Dionysus, God, or the Muse, whatever you want _ to possess him.

This is a peek into the creative process of someone who is universally acknowledged as a master songwriter. Sometimes you wonder where he got all the ideas: in this song he more or less says he can't really take credit for what it is that he does.

Everyone knows the famous first verse/chorus:

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

This intro is the exact equivalent of the beginning of Homer's Illiad: the invocation to the muse: the "Tambourine Man," (not the 'Sandman' or the 'Pusher Man', as I think many people interpret the lyrics).

Dylan himself is pretty much erased from the picture. His senses are gone, he's so tired he's past sleeping, it's early morning, his fingers barely feel the strings, and he's begging to be released from what remains of his consciousness and just go under the 'dancing spell.'

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'.
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.

In Plato's Ion, Socrates drops his famous Q&A for a minute and gives his explanation of how poetry is created. It runs something like this ('Jowett' translation:)

The gift which you possess ... is not an art, but ... an inspiration. There is a divinity moving you, like that contained in the stone which Euripides calls a magnet ... This (magnet) not only attracts iron rings, but also imparts to them a similar power of attracting other rings...all of them derive their power of suspension from the original stone.
In like manner the Muse first of all inspires men herself..For all good poets ... compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.
And as the Corybantian revellers when they dance are not in their right mind, so the lyric poets are not in their right mind when they are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling under the power of music and metre they are inspired and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and honey from the rivers when they are under the influence of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind. And the soul of the lyric poet does the same, as they themselves say; ... For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses ... when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.
In this way, the God would seem to indicate to us ... that these beautiful poems are not ... the work of man, but divine and the work of God; and that the poets are only the interpreters of the Gods by whom they are severally possessed.

Once you've got the idea, the rest of the lyrics fall into place and don't need much interpretation.

Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.

Dylan is the ragged clown. He warns the Tambourine Man not to be distracted as the mortal behind him tries to keep pace with the song. But of course, Dylan won't ever quite be able to behold the Muse directly, he has to chase after its shadow, that's as much as humans can comprehend of the divine.


Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.

Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.

Amazing imagery. Dylan will have to sacrifice all that makes him individual in order to experience the rapture.
Once he loses himself "with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves" he'll be all the way in the creative trance state.

Of course, that means he'll be part of the song, not a performer performing it, but part of the Bacchanal.

After he sleeps maybe a few glimpses of what he saw while dancing with Dionysus on the circus sands will come back to him; that's what's he handed down to us, the next link in Socrates's magnetized chain of rings.

(The photos are of my son, who succumbed totally to Bacchus during our vacation when he was exposed to a techno version of "Bolero" at full volume. It was pretty humorous...).

Full lyrics to "Tambourine Man":

Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
I'm not sleepy and there is no place I'm going to.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me,
In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you.

Though I know that evenin's empire has returned into sand,
Vanished from my hand,
Left me blindly here to stand but still not sleeping.
My weariness amazes me, I'm branded on my feet,
I have no one to meet
And the ancient empty street's too dead for dreaming.


Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin' ship,
My senses have been stripped, my hands can't feel to grip,
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin'.
I'm ready to go anywhere, I'm ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way,
I promise to go under it.


Though you might hear laughin', spinnin', swingin' madly across the sun,
It's not aimed at anyone, it's just escapin' on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin'.
And if you hear vague traces of skippin' reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it's just a ragged clown behind,
I wouldn't pay it any mind, it's just a shadow you're
Seein' that he's chasing.


Then take me disappearin' through the smoke rings of my mind,
Down the foggy ruins of time, far past the frozen leaves,
The haunted, frightened trees, out to the windy beach,
Far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow.
Yes, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves,
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.




Thursday, August 23, 2007

Netwerk vs GeenStijl

An entertaining fight tonight: Old Dutch media vs. New Dutch media. The television program "Netwerk" (=60 Minutes clone) put out an 'expose' (French accent on that e) about the website "GeenStijl," basically accusing them of ... something.

For one, Netwerk 'revealed' that GeenStijl has had several civil complaints filed against it for alleged racism in its comments forum. One complaint was filed by an Amsterdam (district) city council member that GeenStijl routinely refers to as "Jabba the Hut."

No surprise there: the name GeenStijl name means something like "No Style." The site bills itself as the "Vaccuum cleaner of the Internet. You suck? We suck back."

I wish the site could be translated into English, but a lot of it is untranslatable, both culturally and linguistically.

The site's makers are fighting several ongoing lawsuits, including one for allegedly publishing peoples' addresses, which is apparently against Dutch privacy laws. (though addresses are also often available in the phone book...)

I don't want to open the can of worms about whether GeenStijl's comments section actually does have problems: debate and lawsuits abound in every corner of the English speaking internet about how liable websites are for comments, especially comments that are _ in theory _ moderated, as GeenStijl's are.

But I do want to point out: GeenStijl is on my links list. That doesn't necessarily mean I support them or think they're a force for good; it's because I think there's no way around the fact that they're interesting, and as indispensable as the NOS (=Dutch BBC) if one wants to keep tabs on what's happening in the Netherlands.

There's no easy comparison to GeenStijl that I can think of in the U.S. (maybe "Fark", but not really). A lot of it is kind of juvenile 'gotcha' stuff (see 'MORE' at bottom), and their readers are, disproportionately, young men.

But to some extent, they are a news site and at times they clean the clock of the rest of the Dutch media.

The classic example is that, as far as I know, they were first to publish the full name and photo of Mohammed Bouyeri, the religious fanatic who murdered Theo van Gogh in 2004.

I also think they're STILL the only, or one of the only Dutch publications to print his full name.

Come again?

Yes, "Old" Dutch media edit the names of convicts down to first name, last initial. So while the rest of the world knows the killer's full name, Dutch think of him as "Mohammed B." Imagine if American textbooks discussed the importance of Lee Harvey O., or John Wilkes B. to U.S. history...

The Netherlands manages to rank #1 globally for press freedom almost every year, something which makes me want to claw out my eyeballs.

Police here will NEVER confirm the name of a criminal suspect, even when it can be proved by other means (so say a soccer coach is arrested on suspicion of pedophilia, and his perp walk is captured on live TV. No confirmation of the name from Dutch cops).

Courts won't release a suspect's full name, even after he's convicted (on the theory that a murderer deserves to live a normal life once he's released, and not have people he's just met prejudiced against him). In court documents, only initials are used, and sometimes they are changed to make them even more anonymous.

Dutch judges and prosecutors routinely refuse to give their first names. Recently, the Justice Ministry mooted the idea of ceasing to release their last names too, on the theory that doing so left them vulnerable to reprisals from criminals.

So imagine the bailiff announcing a case: 'all rise for the case of suspect X.Y. The honorable Judge Judge presiding. Representing the prosecution, Mr. Prosecutor. Representing the defense, Mr. Koppe.'

(an inside joke: Victor Koppe represents about 1/2 of all high profile Dutch criminal defendants at any one time).

If the freaking prosecutors and judges of a country admit they're afraid to disclose their names in public, then you know its government has no idea how to deal with organized crime. As a defendant, you might as well be facing a panel of men wearing hoods and masks. But I digress.

The "Old" Dutch media is completely willing to play along by any rule authorities throw their way. GeenStijl, on the other hand, uses a mix of common sense and uh, recklessness, in deciding how far to go. So as their name suggests, they cross the lines of good taste sometimes. A lot actually. It keeps things interesting.

I personally believe in treating everybody with respect; but would support to the ends of the earth the right of media, or ANYBODY, to criticize and parody public figures, which is a lot of what GeenStijl does.

Politicians usually know better than to get into a pissing match with a skunk. But not so Dutch ones, especially local politicians (see 'MORE').

And other public figures _ people who have "thrust themselves into the spotlight" as we would say in the U.S., often go ballistic when they get some bad press from the site. And of course it all makes for good reading.

GeenStijl's reaction to Netwerk was predictable, and similar to what they did when they got a "censure" from the Netherlands Union of Journalists (to which they don't belong): they put up a photo of a woman's backside with the words "Kiss My Ass" written on her thong bikini.

Then they provided a full transcription of their conversation with a reporter from Netwerk; on the show tonight, the presenter said that GeenStijl had declined comment on their story, which, judging by the transcript, isn't exactly true.

A classic GeenStijl moment to give an idea of the other kinds of stuff they do:

They did a writeup on this photo of two guys who stole (sorry I mean "found") a cell phone, and took a picture of themselves with it, not realizing its owner had it set up to post photos automatically to his Flickr feed.
Hilarity ensued.
The two honest finders quickly returned the phone.

The other thing that's cool about GeenStijl is that they're Internet savvy enough to give spot commentary on things that are obvious to half the population, but old media aren't brave enough to say.

For instance, a politician in Groningen was adding fake compliments to her official city website _ then tried to deny it, claiming someone was 'spoofing' her IP address.

GeenStijl pointed out that would have had to been done by a rather unique hacker, hell-bent on covertly dishing out praise to a little-known politico...


Sunday, August 19, 2007

Social Networks

(photo of an amusing trio on an Amsterdam park bench)

I'm getting a lot of messages from people on "social networks" like Facebook lately.

Stating the obvious: the basic problem with social networks is that half of your friends/colleagues/family are on one, half are on the other and the other half don't use social networks. And the other half can't do math.

Just as one example, everybody in the Netherlands uses a service called "Hyves," (no seriously, that's its name. It's like having automatic insurance the network never spreads to the English speaking world built-in).

MySpace is a train wreck in terms of loading speed and the flashing cutesy crap, Facebook is better but also getting too 'busy' with all the applications, and LinkedIn is a little sinister in the way it tries to make you feel like you're "missing out" professionally if you're not expanding your network. And of course I know there are many more, including aggregators, etc. There's even one for models and beautiful people (?) apparently being launched by some people I knew back at Henry M. Gunn high school, which may or may not mean the whole idea of social networking has jumped the shark.

Somebody needs to set this straight. What I'm saying is, whoever figures out how to make it so you can post EASILY to all your networks at once, and review the messages at your various networking accounts at once, is going to make a mint. Sorry, I mean: make the world a better place.

Sometimes I wonder if "social networking" couldn't just be done with a combination of personal websites and email.

This guy ("Brad Fitzpatrick") explains it all here in semi-technical terms. He appears to have the resume to know what he's talking about.

Plus he links to some of the places where people are working on solving the problem.

Godspeed, Brad, and please don't name the social networking "solution" something like "Shyngles" or "Pyles."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Philips - Compact Discs

(Photo taken by me at the Philips Technology Campus in Eindhoven: it shows the inside of a CD player, blown up to much larger-than-life size as an educational tool).
So, the Compact Disc turns 25 this month. For people of a certain age it seems like only yesterday. I was 10 years old, and there was a whole new range of products I never knew could exist but suddenly wanted and couldn't afford.

10 years later I remember the bitter pain I felt when someone stole several of my favorite CDs during a party my little sister threw at our house while I was gone, including my "Jackson 5 Greatest Hits" album, and CD 2 of my "JB (James Brown) and the Horny Horns" featuring Maceo Parker. That one was unreplaceable.

Now I have like 300 CDs and never listen to them; too much work to find the ones I want; and "ripping" them all to Mp3 would be more than a week of work (I calculated it).

But I digress.

As it happens, I recently had cause to check out Philips' corporate museum in Eindhoven, and I can recommend it to anybody who basically is interested in old technology, antique radios & microphones, that kind of stuff. I think it's a little bit like the Smithsonian used to be.

Despite the rather hard-to-fine entrance, and unpromising location near a construction pit, it was full of things like original neon lights that still work, funky old art deco advertisements, televisions ensconced in cabinets made of tropical rain forest wood (in the 1950's when that was not politically incorrect), those weird static bulbs that do something with electricity. Edison records. You get the idea. A mad scientist's laboratory. I have a lot more pictures, I guess I'll add them to my Flickr feed eventually. Oh by the way, as far as the Dutch are concerned, Edison didn't really invent the lightbulb: Philips did. I saw something similar recently about how Alexander Gram Bell didn't invent the telephone. Maybe I should look into this, it could be hot news I suppose.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


(photo by Flickr user Akbar1947)

Vacation at last. I hope nothing dramatic happens while we're away, exploring the badlands of Deventer. It was either the Cote d'Azur or this, so our choice was obvious. I may update from on the road, but then again, I might not. MORE

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

House of the Rising Sun

(photo by Flickr user "Naked_Eyes")

The whole first album ("Bob Dylan" 1962) is a kind of supernova, with Dylan announcing himself, absolutely bursting with self-confidence. Cocky and self-aware about how overflowing with talent he is. This album is one of the most obvious in that regard.

It's mostly "cover" songs, but as a lot of people have pointed out, plagiarism is one thing and transformation is something else; the "Master Thief" meme turns up later overtly in Dylan's work. He certainly "knows the (his) song well before (he) starts singing."

Dylan 'borrowed'  some of the style and technique he used on "House of the Rising Sun" from a guy called Dave van Ronk. Once the album came out, Van Ronk couldn't play it anymore without being accused of ripping off Dylan. The punchline: "The Animals" had a number one hit with it two years later ('64) and Dylan couldn't play it anymore without being accused of ripping off the Animals...

On the Scorsese documentary (No Direction Home), Van Ronk relates how Dylan told him in passing that he had gotten a chance to cut a record with a big label: Colombia Records, and decided on the spot to include the song. "Uh, Bobby, I was planning on putting it on my album," Van Ronk answered. Dylan says,  "Oh. Sorry."

I wonder if, but doubt whether (whether/if), Van Ronk is one of the people targeted in "Positively 4th Street."


This is one of the songs people should hear if they don't think Dylan can (could, in his prime) sing.

The energy, the passion, the youth, the emotion, are overwhelming.

At the same time, there's the occasional flourish on the guitar _ just a pause really _ that reminds you of how alert he's being about the technique, timing and the storytelling, as he pours out the emotion. Control within abandon.

A slow build of suspense to a screaming

What a song.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Fan Mail

Yes, this is for real!

At first I though, oh great, another crank, but by the end he (I doubt it was a she) had me laughing. Whoever the mystery author is, look me up when you get to Amsterdam and I'll buy you a beer...

Dear Mr. Sterling,

I recently read your amusing column regarding the potential disappearance of the magic mushroom from smart shops in Amsterdam, due to a few isolated cases of misuse by teenagers. In reading, it certainly seems as though you are strongly in support of this measure. I am outraged at this, as are most of the people with whom I am associated. What, I ask you, do you know about it? Are you stationed in Amsterdam currently? Have you ever taken a magic mushroom yourself? I thought not.

The varying points made throughout your poorly written column were the points of an inexperienced drug user. Having never ingested hallucinogens, how can you possibly be expected to understand what races through the mind of someone with a head full of mushrooms? You can't possibly know the paranoid dementia that is the sweet juicy innard of a mushroom trip. You can't say for certain that the people in the three cases you mentioned were not entirely justified in their actions on those nights. Is it conjecture or fact that no one was chasing the young man who leapt from the balcony? Just because you choose not to believe that the Danish driver who tore through a campsite was doing so in order to destroy last vestiges of the evil spirirt of Lucifer himself, do not think you can force those views on the rest of us. You are hopeless when it comes to psycotropic fungi my friend. I suggest you stick to what miniscule talents you have, perhaps you can arrange to be transferred to a more suitable assignment.

I find this column to be the lowest of the low, the yellowest of yellow journalism. You sir ought to be ashamed of yourself. You are a hack, and I am hereby actively calling for your immediate resignation, as well as an apology to the good people of Amsterdamn, and mushroom purveyors and enthusiasts the world over.


The W.

There is no more so don't click "more"

Did you really think there would be any more?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Spiked II

(photo by jacco de boer)

The leading right wing populist politician in the Netherlands called Wednesday for a ban on the Quran, alleging that the Muslim holy book justifies violence.

Geert Wilders, whose party won 9 of the 150 seats in parliament last year on an anti-immigration platform, published his demand on his Web site and in the De Volkskrant newspaper following an assault over the weekend on a young politician of Iranian background who publicly renounced his Islamic faith.

"Let's stop with this politically correct hemming and hawing," Wilders wrote. "I've had enough of Islam in the Netherlands: not one more Muslim immigrant. I've had enough of the worship of Allah and Mohammed in the Netherlands: not one more mosque. I've had enough of the Quran: forbid that fascist book."

Wilders acknowledged that the idea didn't have any support from other politicians.

He compared the Quran to Hitler's Mein Kampf, which cannot be publicly sold in the Netherlands and is available only in university research libraries.

His remarks were prompted by the attack Saturday on Ehsan Jami, 22, a member of the city council of Voorburg who had appeared on television to renounce Islam. Jami, who was not seriously hurt, has now received police protection.

Banning the Quran would send a signal that it "can never, ever can be used as inspiration or excuse for violence," said Wilders, who also is under police protection after receiving numerous death threats.

If you've read this much, you might as well read:

The mainstream media struggles mightily with how to report on Geert Wilders. Freedom of speech is a blessing and a right. But those with the power to speak loudly bear a great responsibility to speak well and wisely.

This is true for Wilders; and true for the media.

I think Wilders thinks he's speaking from his heart and standing up for what he believes in.
But maybe he didn't notice: he's talking about banning a holy book that is the basis of a world religion. In addition, he's an advocate of free speech, talking about banning books.

And, I wonder: what does he think of the many offensive passages in the old testament?

I had a good argument with a friend of mine recently about free speech and Muslims.

My viewpoint was that it's poor taste to insult people of any kind.

My friend insisted that freedom of speech means freedom to insult Muslims.

I agreed _ but I still think insulting people is poor taste, and Muslims is people. Us is them.

My friend argued that the real reason I would be worried about insulting Muslims is that they go out of their way to be insulted and I was basically not expressing my true views about Muslims, because I was afraid they might get angry. In other words, I was self censoring because of an implicit threat.

That's an argument Christopher Hitchens makes, too.

Anyhow I disagreed. I still think it's poor taste to insult people, and I think you should only do it when there's a very good reason. And you should say the reason.

And when someone says something stupid, it's not always really worth repeating.

Everybody wants to be respected. The politicians of this world, and the press of this world, have a duty to do their best to show respect.

It's not really that complicated.


Wednesday, August 8, 2007


There's talk of banning mushrooms in the Netherlands.

The problem with "Shrooms," in my opinion, is that it's unpredictable how people will react to them. I have nothing to say about whether it's morally wrong or right for someone to try them: people have been eating mushrooms since time began, I guess. They won't hurt your health directly, but when a tourist (or anybody) freaks out after taking them, it can be sad for them and a danger to others.

The real question should be: can society afford to balance the problems and trouble from people freaking out with the freedom people should have to take a trip that's the mental equivalent of flying to Mars? It reminds me very much of people who go hiking or sailing in dangerous areas and then taxpayer money gets spent bailing them out.

Anyhow, the 'kicker' to this story is: the brothers who grow all the mushrooms say they've never taken them themselves. If they get shut down, they plan to take the last ones they grow at a big party with all their friends. Now that's one party I'd like to see...

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Gay Pride

The waters ran pink with gayness in Amsterdam yesterday. It was quite a beautiful day to be out and around in the city.

These photos were taken from a friend's boat moored on the Prinsengracht, around number 250, so very close to the start of the parade. I should mention my friend's boat, a sail-able house perfect for two, is for sale, so lemme know if anybody out there is interested...I think they're looking for EUR350,000?

There are many, more pictures at GeenStijl.

Afterward, I went for ribs with the AP television people. At the KLOS, obviously.


Fortis shareholders sharpen knives for ABN

Fortis wants to buy ABN Amro, but is it a wolf in lamb's clothing?

What would Max Havelaar do?

Non-business-types can tune out now.

While to some, Fortis's shareholder meeting(s) Monday might like just another squabble in the jackal vs. vulture fracas to buy ABN Amro, to me it looks like high noon in Dodge City.

A Fortis approval will mean the consortium's "weakest link" has held, and the RBS-led bid of at least 10 percent more than Barclays' offer will very likely end up winning ABN Amro. Because: if I offer you your choice of $90 or $100, which would you choose? Now ask yourself the same question, and add the word "billion" after those numbers. That's more or less the situation.

On the other hand, a surprise rejection by Fortis shareholders would mean chaos for the RBS-Fortis-Santander consortium, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria. Their bid could fall apart. Of course, maybe they have a "Plan B" ready for just that scenario. I can't think of what that plan would be, but then: I'm not a financial journalist. I just play one on TV.

At any rate, things would get exciting.

I mean, exciting in terms of a banking deal. It's relative.

The protagonists, or antagonists, depending on which side you take, have made all their moves and the very, very, very smart money probably already knows which way the vote at Fortis's shareholder meeting will work out.

I personally have no idea. Looking at the share prices all around, and forgetting about little niggling details like "arbitrage," it looks like the market is betting the Fortis share issue will be approved.

Clear your mind of the present situation and look at the history of big acquisitions with a high premium like the one Fortis's shareholders are being asked to approve. You'd have to think: if this were my company issuing stock like that, I'd be running for the door.

Hence the massive Fortis share decline since they entered the bidding back in April. Scaredy cats such as the fictional me have already run away.

Conversely, a Barclays' emission of even greater size should have a dramatic negative effect on its shares. No such massive decline at Barclays, just a minor one. So, again, the market thinks Fortis will mostly likely win, i.e., Barclays will lose, and so, no selloff in Barclays shares.

However, speaking as someone who went to the casino this week and walked away with a whopping EUR25, I'm thinking about the following:

If someone with lots of money to play around with _ call him Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, or whomever you will _ was interested in earning a little jack without much work, all he would have to do is buy, say, EUR8 billion worth of Fortis shares in order to have a comfortable blocking minority.

This Dupert Turdoch votes against the emission and *hey presto* Fortis stock is up at least 10-15 percent overnight, and he's netted himself a healthy profit. Maybe more if this Rupald Mump has got huevos grandes and has also shorted Barclays shares.

The only problem with this cunning plan is that, someone would *surely* have noticed had Fortis's shares been under accumulation to the tune of 1/5 of its total share capital.

A paltry 11 million Fortis shares traded hands Friday, I assume that was a heavy volume. At around that rate, every single Fortis share sold for the past month would have had to have fallen into the hands of Turdoch and his cronies for them to have a blocking stake.

Not bloody likely.

But imagine that this Turdoch _ a visionary _ saw this scenario developing, say, back in early June. Then it's two months to get ready. And in addition, he's been borrowing stock to vote those shares too, making deals with big Fortis shareholders and pulling other sharky shenanigans.

It's a crazy plan; he would have already taken quite a whuppin' on the stock fall even since June, but a big pop Monday could more than make up for that (especially in combo with a big short position in Barclays).

So, in summary: this is all a very hypothetical scenario, and the markets tend to suggest that things will simply go the other way. The more I think about it, the more it seems like this is a done deal for RBS and co.

Put a fork in it.

But: a wacky upset would sure make for a good story.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Mush Room

Coming soon:

"At last the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth, and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

`Who are YOU?' said the Caterpillar.

This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, `I--I hardly know, sir, just at present-- at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.'

`What do you mean by that?' said the Caterpillar sternly. `Explain yourself!'

`I can't explain MYSELF, I'm afraid, sir' said Alice, `because I'm not myself, you see.'

`I don't see,' said the Caterpillar.

`I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly,' Alice replied very politely, `for I can't understand it myself to begin with."

Poor Alice.

Today I met with two gentlemen whose business it is to grow mushrooms. This is 100 percent legal in Holland, though after some recent incidents in which tourists who took mushrooms caused problems or injured (and in one case killed) themselves, they're talking about banning them.

The punchline: the two guys who grow about 60 percent of mushrooms sold in the Netherlands have never tried them themselves. And no, this is not a question of 'not inhaling.' The moment was apparently never right...

Well, they say 'don't get high on your own supply', and I guess these gents have taken that advice to heart. It was quite a fascinating experience seeing their operation. Very high-tech.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Holland Casino

I had good news this week. Very good news. So now, I'm going to push my luck. Should I put every thing on number 22? Baby needs a new pair of shoes!

UPDATE: Click "MORE" to see how I did

All right. Not that I endorse gambling, and not to brag, but


That's like, US$35.

Exciting, no? Sushi for the Sterlings tonight as a reward.

Check my Flickr feed for a few photos of the cast of characters:
Napoleon, Shoes, Shackleton, and Count de Money.


Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Out of the Closet

No, not that closet. This closet: I'm an Eagle Boy Scout. And I'm proud, gosh darn it!

Today, the international scouting movement is 100 years old. After the "More," I present my theory of the three kinds of Boy Scouts. Be Prepared. As I said, there are three kinds of boy scouts.

1) Kids who joined the Boy Scouts because it feels like a youth military program, complete with medals and badges. I wouldn't go so far as to say, the same type of people who became brown shirts once upon a time in Germany, but _ let's just say they believe in discipline.

2) Kids whose parents made them join because it's a good clean religious organization, a way to instill children with virtue and teach them about public service: A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. (See? I really was a scout).

3) And finally, those who join Boy Scouts because they love hiking, campfires, and freezing their gonads in icy cold mountain lakes.

Guess which kind I was?

(The picture is of Huntington Lake, home of Camp Oljato, where I shriveled my scrotum many a summer with Palo Alto's Troop 52).


Toby Simpson

Ah, the mindless pleasures. You can do the same at "Simpsonize me dot com"

Don't click because there is NO

See, I told you there was no more...