Sunday, September 30, 2007

Soldier of Orange / Soldaat van Oranje

This photo (from Wikipedia) is a screenshot of Rutger Hauer in the film, Soldier of Orange/Soldaat van Oranje. The real Soldier of Orange died this week.

Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema was a man who lived a romantic, somewhat reckless, and somewhat peripatetic life, and was indeed fortunate to survive into old age.

Movies always make things seem more glamorous than they are, but c'mon: smuggling radio equipment into the Netherlands by boat, shuttling resistance leaders back and forth across the English Channel; flying bombing missions with the RAF; earning the highest military honor for bravery in battle; becoming close friends with the royal house; it's an amazing story.

Like the hero of "Europa, Europa" in some ways.

As an appendix, I highly recommend Soldaat van Oranje, which is debatably the best Dutch film there is (though debatably there's not a lot of competition). But Paul Verhoeven is, in my opinion, an underrated director, and this is his best work. Yes, better than "Turkish Fruit," not to mention "Starship Troopers" and "Robocop."

The photo above shows the war hero face to face with the collaborator; but the film itself is subtle. People make difficult choices, and live and die by them.

The ending of the movie is one of the ultimate expressions of the Dutch national character: Rutger Hauer drinks a glass of wine with an old school buddy who basically just sat out the war without doing anything. He says something to Hauer (Roelfzema) like "gosh, did all those things really happen to you?"

A multifaceted question.

I find that Verhoeven would end on that note so typically Dutch. Critical, self-critical, realistic in appraisal of his countrymen. Most of us are not heroes nor villains; and most Dutch who 'just followed orders' in shipping off Jews to the camps weren't either. They just watched as history went by.

Secondarily, I notice that Google has this story hosted on its own site. Is this Armageddon for AP's newspaper customers/owners?


Richard Branson / Qurrent / My Solution for Global Warming

And the winner is...


With all the plans out there for reducing carbon dioxide emissions and energy consumption, I asked Branson whether he thought there were any good ideas for actually fighting global warming, rather than defending against it.

He said no, but there is a $25 million prize for someone who can figure out a way to take x tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Okay. But actually, I have a different plan. What about painting the Earth white?

No seriously. Here's my recipe: grind up one billion teaspoons' worth of aluminum, strap it to the back of a rocket, and detonate it up in the stratosphere. The dust reflects the sun's rays and *hey presto* global cooling.

Just a thought.

Branson's best joke, though I have a feeling he's told it many times, was that he had thought about starting a wedding dress company called Virgin Bride _ but he couldn't find any customers. Badum-bump.

By the way, please tell me if these videos are choking my site's download speed. I seem to experience that; if so, I'll go back to just photographs.


Cory Doctorow at Picnic

(credit: silvertje)
In blog, and in life, sometimes the quantity overtakes the quality. So this post and the following are dedicated to un-erasing several days of professional mediocrity brought on by the immense time pressure I suffer (And who doesn't? But I think I am a special case. And who doesn't? But I do...)

I interviewed Cory Doctorow at Picnic. Even though there was limited "news value" to what I could get out of him, it was fascinating from start to finish. It's the people who are most different in their way of thinking that sharpen your wit the most.

So what I'm saying is, we probably haven't read the same books.

Too bad the story only reflects the serious stuff, because he was very funny when discussing copyright.

If you don't believe me, click "More."

(credit: eschipul)

My main interest was to try to get him to talk about how "developments" in the digital liberties sphere are shaking out differently in Europe vs. in the United States, and to pick his brain a bit on who, what, where to keep my eyes on.

He compared the record companies who are filing lawsuits against music downloaders to the gnomes in one 'Simpsons' episode who steal everybody's underwear as part of a scheme for world domination. The problem with their scheme is that they've only got three steps:

1) Steal Underwear,
3) World Domination.

But there's no step 2.

The record companies have the same plan:
1) Sue Best Customers,
3) Profit.

His description of the bigger landscape was fascinating:
He says the record companies have figured out their winning tactic, which is intimidating people into settling civil suits, so they're pressing ahead with them in massive numbers.
Meanwhile, due to the nature of technology and people's desire for information to be free, downloaders have ever-better tools, and ever-faster connections, and of course are downloading ever-more files.

So in essence, both sides are winning on offense and losing on defense, and it's a battle royale out there...

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Woody Harrelson

Woody Harrelson was at the Picnic conference in Amsterdam today.

I've always liked Harrelson as an actor. Here's him on his return to work after a long hiatus:

He also talked about how much he loves Amsterdam, riding a bike. He refused to comment when a Dutch journalist asked him what he thought about the marijuana policy here, which was a little surprising. Yes there is More...
Here's a little taste of his yoga class:

Go Woody!
Celebrities are magic. You can't see very well from this photo, but there were a fair number of people actually participating. Yes, even me. Sorry, no photo of that...


We just saw it from a different point of view

Look kids, Big Ben! Parliament!

It was a lovely trip to London, dampened slightly by a little trouble with the immigration authorities at Schiphol when I tried to re-enter the Netherlands.

They saw in their computer that I was once Dutch, but my passport has been revoked. Of course I wasn't traveling on the Dutch passport (I've already handed that over to immigration authorities), but on my U.S. passport; and I now have a valid Dutch immigrant work visa.
But they wanted me to turn in my Dutch passport.

Not possible.

To recapitulate, I was supposed to turn it in at Amsterdam City Hall, but was refused by the bureaucrats there. I later handed it over at a very formal meeting with the IND (Dutch Immigration Service) at the Vreemdelingenpolitie (foreigner's police) office, conveniently located in a heavily immigrant neighborhood in the 'slums' along Amsterdam's outskirts.
These are pretty nice slums compared to the French Banlieues, by the way, speaking as someone who has lived briefly in both.

It really should have been noted in their computer system, since I could never have gotten the new visa without turning in the passport.

So anyhow, we were at loggerheads. I would have photographed the Maurechaussee (border cops), but my life experience with police has taught me to be very polite with them; and they often don't take kindly to people taking pictures...

Eventually something in my weary gaze, and/or the fact that my Dutch wife was with me and/or that our son was uh, impatient, convinced him just to make photocopies of my documents and let us through.

We saw the "Merchant of Venice" at the Globe Theater (Theatre) along the Thames. Possibly the best Shakespeare production I've ever been to.
I tried to get a bit of the atmosphere in the photo _ the theater has an open roof (night photography is difficult!). At the start of the show, Lancelot Gobbo (the clown) comes out and looks sullenly at the crowd, addressing first the people with seats and then those with standing room only tickets ('groundlings'), pointing at us with a half-eaten chicken bone: "Ladies and Gentlemen _ and the POOR _ please turn off your futuristic ringing and picture making devices.
I had to laugh.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Farewell, but not goodbye

I'm off to London-town on family business for a few days, which means brief posts, or none, or few.

If you're in Amsterdam this weekend and looking for something to do, I highly recommend "Robodock."


Tip tip, cheerio and all that rot. MORE

Two Passports Toch? The WRR, "dropping science"

(photo credit: flickr's spatfield. And to quote Michael Jackson's Billy Jean: 'the kid is not my son.')

As I was busy packing my bags for a little intra-Europe travel, I came across the following item:

The Netherlands' WRR, or "Scientific Council for Government Policy," has proclaimed it should be okay for immigrants in the Netherlands to become naturalized Dutch but also retain their original passport.

"The Council pleads for formally-juridically allowing dual nationalities. In a globalizing world, having two passports is becoming a given. Not only for 'New Dutch,' but also for Dutch emigrees. Problems that could arise from allowing officials who represent the Netherlands (to have two passports) should be discussed in a professional manner and resolved in a practical way. In addition, identifying with the Netherlands is more likely to succeed when you're not forced to give up the bond you have with the country you come from."

As some of you know, for me, this is too little, too late. I already had to give up my Dutch passport.

I estimate the cost of all the time, paperwork, citizenship classes and visas over the eight years I've lived in the Netherlands at well over 5,000 euros (okay, peanuts to some, but more than just an inconvenience to us impoverished journalists). And now that the dollar is tanking, that's what, US$1 million?


I have noticed in the past that the WRR is made up of a bunch of well-meaning but impossibly academic folks whose ideas are never taken seriously by the government. And they have zero to do with science that I can see.

I wonder how they're funded?

In any case, this time they are obviously spot-on _ and they came to this conclusion a mere four years after the previous Cabinet's reign of terror began, and only six months after it came to an end.

So: thanks a million, guys.

Friday, September 21, 2007

ABN Amro / Groenink / The Last Supper

I went on a little trip to Rotterdam today. A bittersweet moment for Rijkman Groenink, CEO of ABN Amro, no doubt. Presumably his last appearance as chairman of an independent ABN Amro, unless the spinning coin of fate somehow lands on its edge.

Here's a video of him discussing his future.
What's interesting is the degree of confidence with which he talks about what the consortium is going to do once it wins. Remember, Barclays bid is still on the table, and he's said he still prefers it.

Well, at least his head won't be displayed on a spike after the barbarians storm the gate. And at least he can still laugh...

A RBS victory was predictable and predicted.

Here's a smaller clip, with him giving his explanation of the board's neutral stance on the bids.(in Dutch, transcript below).

"Our conclusion, is it can't be denied ... the offer of the consortium is much superior for shareholders. That's just the way it is. So that's in fact, an Anglo Saxon recommendation for shareholders. Only, if we take everything (waves arms) into consideration, we can't come to a recommendation."

If you're American and mystified as to what he's saying: In the U.S. and British systems (which he calls "Anglo-Saxon"), shareholders are king. But in the 'continental' system, managers are supposed to take all 'stakeholders' into account, including customers and employees.

What remains something of a mystery to me, is why exactly he thinks the consortium bid is worse for other 'stakeholders'. More jobs will be lost under the Barclays merger, and Groenink says himself there's little doubt the consortium members will be able to create value and continue to grow and improve ABN's businesses.

Does he think bank customers are going to get the shaft from Fortis more than they would from Barclays (or more than they already do from ABN Amro?) Am I just too cynical about banks generally?.

Anyhow, I think shareholders, executives, employees, bidders, reporters, spokespeople, and most of all people stuck watching this evolve on the nightly news for the past 6 months can all agree we'll be glad when *whichever* deal is finally done.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Black Fish Scandal of Urk

There's a town in the Netherlands called "Urk." That's its name.

Urk is an ancient fishing village _ so ancient, in fact, that it used to be an island, until the Dutch sealed off part of the North Sea with a dike to create a massive inland lake, and filled enough of that lake with so much land that it created a whole new province, surrounding Urk. They still speak their own language in Urk. They also believe that children come from a giant rock in the lake that was once the sea. But those are stories for another time.

Urk is a heavily Christian place. There are only three political parties that win votes in Urk, the Christian Unie (a Christian values party that emphasizes charity), the Christian Democrats (the basic conservative Christian party in the Netherlands) and the SGP (the fundamentalist Christian party).
Of all the cities in the Netherlands, Urk had the highest percentage of voters who rejected the European constitution in 2005 _ because it didn't mention Christianity as its ethical basis.

So it came as quite a shock in 2005 when it emerged that there might be something rotten in the village of Urk.

(photo: smeerch)

Prosecutors said there was a conspiracy between the fish regulator, the fishermen and the fish-shops, to avoid European quotas: for instance, to report a catch of Dab in place of Plaice.

The mayor, Dick Schutte, who had tipped the director of the Fish Regulation Office, Teun Visser ("Fisher") a raid was coming, was forced to resign.

In all, 48 Urkers were accused of involvement in the conspiracy, good men, Christians all, and true. One town councilman, Jan Koffeman _ a member of the SGP _ was accused and also resigned.

He was re-elected last year though, with 900 write-in votes. Urk's not very big. It has only 17,000 inhabitants, making it the smallest municipality in its province. All the Urkers knew what was going on at the fish markets, or so they say.

Charges were dropped against ten of the suspects, and 11 more confessed to minor charges, but this month, the remaining 27 came before the judge.

And the first 19 denied everything. But the 20th _ the 20th, Evert van Diepen, the owner of Van Diepen Fish Trading, whose phone had been tapped at the start of the investigation _ he confessed it all, in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Now things don't look good for the other suspects.

Especially the director, whose standard refrain throughout the trial was "I didn't know and I wasn't involved."

Judgment day is coming, Oct. 10.

Why do I find this so amusing? Do I delight in seeing the reputation of the sanctimonious city of Urk besmirched?

It's childish and yes, yes I do.

Monday, September 17, 2007

AP sells Dutch language news service to Novum

(flickr: /ivan)
*A whole new outlook*

My, my, my:

The Associated Press has sold its Dutch language news service (created in 1945) to Novum, (created in 1999) a press agency that is attempting to challenge the dominant ANP, or "General Netherlands Press Bureau" on the Dutch market.

"Under the terms of the deal, Novum will acquire the AP's Dutch news service and its staff, continuing to translate AP's international report for Dutch newspapers, Web sites and commercial clients. Novum will also become sales agent for the AP's English-language news and photo service in the Netherlands."

-AP story on the deal.

Want to know what I think about this?


Sorry about that. Rules is rules.

The rest of the AP story:

"We're delighted with this exciting new partnership which will create a dynamic new service in the Dutch language," said Barry Renfrew, AP's vice president of Global Business for Europe, Middle East and Africa. "We are confident that the combination of AP's unmatched global coverage and Novum's strong local reporting will provide an excellent service for Dutch clients."
"I appreciate the trust that AP is placing in Novum in agreeing to allow us to continue the tradition of the Dutch service on its behalf," said Bram Bloemberg, managing director of the privately owned Novum, which was founded in 1999. "This gives us a stronger position in the Dutch market, which is a valuable development for both sides."
The agreement is to take immediate effect, and there will be no interruption in service to clients. Commercial terms of the agreement were not disclosed.
The Associated Press is a global news network, delivering news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. Founded in 1846, AP today is the world's largest source of independent news and information. On any given day, more than half the world's population sees news from AP.
The AP operates as a not-for-profit cooperative owned by its 1,500 U.S. daily newspaper members.
The AP's Dutch service began immediately after World War II when AP staffers in Holland received AP international news dispatches by Morse code from London, translated them _ often by candlelight in a city still short of power _ and delivered carbons of the report by bicycle to subscribers in Amsterdam.
In the decades since, the AP Dutch Service established a strong position in the Dutch media market.

NYT vs WSJ in Mickey Mouse MBA smackdown

(flickr photo: ikayama)
How embarrassing! The New York Times and Wall Street Journal ran opposing "trend" stories about MBAs just one day apart.
From the NYT we learn (login) about the dashing Mr. Andrew Hammond:

"Like other young people on the fast track, Mr. Hammond has run the numbers and figures that an M.B.A. is a waste of money and time — time that could be spent making money. “There’s no way that I would consider it,” he says."

"The competition from alternative investment firms — private equity and hedge funds in particular — is driving up salaries of entry-level analysts at much larger banks. And top performers at the banks make so much money today that they don’t want to take two years off for business school, even if it’s a prestigious institution like the Wharton School or Harvard."

From the WSJ we learn

"With demand growing for M.B.A. graduates, it is a seller's market out there, making it tough for many companies to meet hiring quotas using old tried-and-true recruiting methods. At a time when career opportunities are so plentiful that students can afford to turn down even six-figure offers from investment banks, it is especially difficult for traditional manufacturers to make an impression."

"So to improve their odds, recruiters are visiting business schools earlier and more often, raising starting salaries and touting their company's dedication to work-family balance."

So which is it, MBAs hotter than ever, or MBAs, who needs 'em?

I guess they both agree that it's steak and gravy these days for investment banks and the six-(or seven) figure-earning bastards* who work for them.

(But wait! Aren't we in the middle of a financial crisis that's about to destroy life as we know it?)

Apparently not.

This all reminds me of a story I once heard about Disneyland.

(yes, it all ties together in the end)

Apparently there are are a dozen Mickey Mouse mascots walking around the park at any one time. So each needs at least a few minders to walk with them and act as lookouts to make sure that no two Mickey Mouse mascots are located in the same place at the same time.

Because if children were to see two "Mickeys" at once, they'd start wondering which is the real Mickey, so to speak. And start asking probing, uncomfortable questions.

Like, "are 'trend' stories kind of Mickey Mouse? Do they identify often bogus trends because some editor thinks it's a good idea and then attempt to peddle them as news?

Speaking from experience, yes.

And if the NYT and WSJ reps had been paying more attention at the last cartel meeting, they would have separated these stories by at least a month, for good form.

(Removes tongue from cheek)

*All investment bankers are bastards _ except my cousin Ben and this girl I know Joelle, who are both actually quite nice. Perhaps not coincidentally, they're also the only two investment bankers I've ever met personally.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

(Photo: Jacco de Boer)
The Dutch budget has once again been leaked.

It's a tradition as old as the swallows returning to the mission of San Juan Capistrano. Every year, the government makes the journalists of the Netherlands sign an oath at the crossroads at midnight, drink blood and swear on their great-grandmother's grave that they will not break the embargo, and every year, the budget is leaked several days (with small bits preferably several weeks) ahead of time.

Of course, no one cares about the actual contents of the budget. Nobody not Dutch anyway, or just a few economists somewhere who need the data to plug into their "Eurozone" spreadsheet.

But the reaction of the politicians is often quite amusing, and especially Jan Peter Balkenende went into conniptions in 2005, swearing it would never happen again.

Last year, incredibly, not much got out _ because the actual contents were restricted to top-ranking Cabinet members only, and journalists were told they would never EVER receive the budget again if they broke the embargo (an unenforceable, empty threat).

Even the leaders of the political parties in Parliament were cut out of the loop, which meant debate had to be pushed forward a week after the release, while everyone read through the 50,000 pages it contains to discover what was actually being said.

For anybody sane, a one-page summary would do, but that's not the way these things work.

Interested in a quick summary? Click "MORE".

-they're aiming for a surplus of 0.5 percent this year

-fractionally higher taxes for the rich, fractionally more money for welfare (the shift toward the left in the ruling coalition visible there, barely. But expect much gnashing of teeth from the political right...).

-higher taxes for airlines and gas.

Did I miss anything?

Oh yeah, something about solving the problem of a "graying" population by forcing old rich people with two pensions to pay some taxes on one?

Sex, drugs and rock and roll, it ain't.

footnote: Thanks, RTL Nieuws! The smug look on their reporter's face as he announces the leak is engaging and annoying at the same time...


Greenwashing / Shell Oil / Lush Cosmetics (NUDITY!)

The news today is that the Northwest Passage is being laid bare for the first time since 1100 A.D. or so, which reminds me:

It's amazing how environmentally-friendly companies in the Netherlands have become lately. After the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," it was as if they had all been converted to Greenianity overnight. And they're not afraid to boast about it, either no matter what kind of business it is that they're in. KLM, TNT Post, Akzo Nobel, Unilever...

Here's the chain of events, as I see it:

1) Paid "trendwatchers" report back to the ad agencies that hired 'em: 'Green is in this year.'

2) After a few all-night brainstorming sessions, the advertising guys get out there and pitch the idea that, with a little airbrushing, say, EADS NV (Airbus) can *also* have an environmentally friendly image.

3) The idea falls on fertile ground, because one of their cigar-chewing executives has recently stumbled across a story in the Wall Street Journal in which his company's major rival is mentioned favorably for doing "sustainability" reporting, and sustainable companies outperform their peers on the stock market.

Next thing you know, they're out there like a bad vaudeville act, some fat sweaty guy tap-dancing with a cane and singing the "O-la-la-la" backup vocals to Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always go to show / you don't know what you've got till it's gone / they paved paradise to put up a parking lot."

Which brings me to my main topic: Royal Dutch Shell PLC, based in the Netherlands, spends a lot of money advertising itself as an environmentally concerned corporation.

Now, there are two ways of looking at a company like Shell doing this (assuming you believe, as I do, that industrial nations need oil companies like Shell to maintain our current standard of living while we transition away from an oil-based economy).

The first says: Let Shell not embarrass itself or insult our intelligence by pretending in any way shape or form to be "green." We will solve our environmental problems by other means (taxes, emission caps, cap-and-trading systems, research, cleaner technologies, etc.) In the meanwhile, let Shell be the Leviathan it was shaped to be by our free-market system: as efficient and profitable as it can, extracting oil as savagely as the laws of each land in which it operates will allow, and selling it for all the market will bear.

And then there are others (like me) who think the alternative energy projects undertaken by Shell have meaning, and they have the right to advertise about them. For instance, they recently built the first major windmill farm off the Dutch coast in the North Sea.

I view this as a reasonable way for Shell to show that it is not blind to the issues surrounding global warming. The project cost $250 million to build, and Shell is hoping that with massive government subsidies, it can recover that much in sales (NOT profits!) over its 20-year life cycle. Meanwhile, the company made more than $8 billion in profits in the second quarter of this year alone.

So, at a total cost of 1 percent of annual profits (one hundredth of a percent of sales) the North Sea project essentially falls under Shell's advertising budget. But the world needs to get going on this kind of project and I'd rather see Shell messing around in the ocean with a $250 million at stake than either the government or some kind of 'startup' company or NGO.

However, Shell is certainly not above a little pure silliness now and again. They were recently ordered by the Dutch Reclame Code Commissie (the country's advertising watchdog) to stop broadcasting a commercial wherein flowers are seen growing out of a smoke-stack. An inspiring image, the Commissie found, but misleading, given that Shell only recycles a tiny amount of the pollutants it produces _ and the commercial appeared to suggest it recycled them all.

Oh, so what about the nudity promised in the headline?

Click "more" to find out!

(BEWARE! 18 and older only! Prude people read no further!)

I knew you'd be reading this.

Lush, a cosmetics company on Amsterdam's Kalverstraat, used these buttocks as an advertising stunt on Thursday, to show how green and sexy the company is. You see the connection, of course.

(Eyes glaze over).

Huh? Oh yeah, the idea is that Lush uses less packaging materials than its competitors. And that all the packaging it does use comes from recycled materials.

Or so they say.

Could it be that this is just a crass ploy to cash in on the green rage?

How much did they pay their employees to participate in this humiliation?

Or did they 'volunteer'?

And could it be that I'm just trying to cash in on their crassness in order to increase traffic to this blog?

Come back again (and again) to find out...

Friday, September 14, 2007

Amsterdam Dungeon

With selections from an actual press release that came across my desk. They didn't mention whether they have a gimp.

The Amsterdam Dungeon

"A splendid, unique experience in the Netherlands! The Amsterdam Dungeon brings the most horrific periods of Dutch history back to life."

You'll laugh at hilarious medieval escapades like witch burnings, the inquisition and the bubonic plague!

"A simulation of a Far East Indies ship emphasizes the experiences of those who were forced to work on board."

Fun for the whole family!

"The Amsterdam Dungeon is an attraction that's fun, educational and freaky, and so is therefore a different kind of excursion for people of various ages"*

"*Not suitable for children under 8 because of the true-to-life experience."

What's next, the Red Light District as conceived by Disney and the Muppets?

Dutch Feds: No ID, No (Artificial) Shit

(photo credit: flickr's D. Knisely).
The Dutch government has decided not to sell fertilizer anymore to people with no identification.

Why is this happening in September 2007, instead of oh, say, September 2001?

From the press release:

"The artificial fertilizer sector and the government are taking measures to prevent the misuse (cq) of ammonium nitrate products. These measures go for the whole chain from production to processing and use."

blah blah blah, the deal was signed Thursday, blah blah blah.

"One important measure is that soon, when trading in fertilizer, the buyer will have to be registered."
"Private individuals won't be able to get the products concerned, containing ammonium nitrate, in the future without legitimate ID."

Tjonge jonge jonge (=Dutch for shaking your head in disbelief).

One of the guys now serving time in a Dutch jail on terrorism-related charges, Samir Azzouz, was acquitted on earlier charges of planning a bomb attack because the kind of fertilizer he had bought to make his bomb didn't have the right composition to work as an explosive.

And his ignition system was faulty.

Judges allowed for the possibility he might have worked out the kinks, but as it was, he didn't present a clear and present danger...


Thursday, September 13, 2007

KLM's Ovulation Leave - Hoax

(thanks to Flickr user "Illustir")

A great story in De Telegraaf today: KLM stewardesses are being granted special "furloughs" at times of the month when they are most able to get pregnant.

They call it "ovulation leave."

Unfortunately, KLM denies the story outright.

Si non e vero, e bene trovato.

(credit: flickr's bogers) MORE

Wijffels - World Bank - Melkert - Wolfowitz

Lots going on in the Dutch news today, with "Iron" Rita Verdonk finally getting chucked from her party, to the release of Jose Maria Sison.

I was waxing philosophical about Rita just the other day.

However, sometimes I see it as my duty to look at what's falling between the cracks and not being reported. Or in this case, translated.

So: the Nederlands Dagblad had an interview today with Herman Wijffels. Who the %$%# is Herman Wijffels?
I'm glad you asked. Herman Wijffels is a Dutch politician who wound up on the board of the World Bank and chaired the investigation into Paul Wolfowitz's ethics that ultimately led to his ouster as president.
Some say Wijffels, together with Ad Melkert, were the architects of Wolfowitz's downfall, and some leftists think there's a hunt on to take Melkert down at his current job at the UNDP as revenge. With the "Cash for Kim" scandal as putative reason.
Previous blah blah
and more blah
Here's the man:
(thanks for the so-so photo by Flickr's 'Hans on Experience.' Beggars can't be choosers...)

The Nederlands Dagblad was extremely cautious in its wording and attribution, so I suppose I owe it to them to do the same. In essence, it said that "third parties" went rooting around in Wijffels' bank accounts (how? it doesn't say) and looking for evidence of extramarital affairs in order to discredit him.

The paper didn't just come out and say these were Bush supporters, but did say that "The White House had a major influence in the fight over the leadership at the World Bank."

Here are Wijffels quotes, translated:

"People went rooting around in my past in a shocking manner"

"There was nothing they could find about me, but among my colleagues at the World Bank there was great consternation. There were very clear attempts to discredit them."

Wijffels also said that whenever a country was being discussed at the World Bank where U.S. interests were at stake, everyone would "skirt the issues."

Not quite sure what he's getting at there.

Anyhow, I guess it goes without saying: don't believe everything you read.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Comic Relief

Just in case you were worried I don't have any sense of humor.

A Dutch designer has created a Tanja Nijmijer t-shirt. (see earlier post on Tanja featuring similar Balkenende t-shirts.
He doens't say how much they cost, but I'd like to buy one myself for my collection.

And, a hilarious link to an American's amazement at the Dutch biking scene. (A foretaste:)

I couldn't have said this stuff better than myself (note my son, in "suicide position") in photo at upper left hand corner of page.
(Thanks, Norma!)

That's All, Folks! MORE

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Ex Muslims

(photo: darkpatator)
Muslims around Europe are launching committees of "Ex-Muslims"
The idea is, they want to demand the right to renounce religion without facing reprisals from other Muslims. This is a sledgehammer to the worldview of people who see Islam as one monolithic block of radicals. Of course there's a huge diversity of opinion within people who live in or immigrate from Muslim-majority countries to the West, because they are a huge number of people. (indiepoprockJesse)

Possibly the most interesting part of the debate in the Netherlands has been about freedom of speech and whether it includes the right to insult. Obviously, freedom of speech has its limits (especially as regards hate speech), but it does include that basic right.

However, people who insult also offend, and (as Christopher Hitchens says) Muslims have proven themselves champions at avenging insults with violence. At least in recent years.

But who in the world DOESN'T get bothered by insults? That's the point of an insult, after all.

Last month, Dutch police sued and WON a suit against a guy who gave them the finger, saying it was illegal to insult an officer because it was damaging to his authority and reputation.
That was an extremely bad ruling, and wouldn't stand up in U.S. courts.

On the other hand, who is so stupid that he gives the finger to a police officer? Anywhere in the world, from Saudi Arabia to the United States to France to Japan, you are asking for trouble when you make an obscene gesture at a cop. You may not have done anything (else) wrong, but you are sure to be punished in some way; in my experience the kind of people who become police officers are often the same kind of people likely to enjoy wielding authority and bullying.

The previous Dutch immigration minister, Rita Verdonk, sued to prevent squatters from hanging a banner that read "Rita Mordenaar" _ which means, "Rita Murderer." Under her regime, a dozen immigrants were burnt to death while awaiting deportation in a hastily built prison. Is that insult not fair comment, especially for a public figure?

The squatters initially lost their case, and were forced to hang banners that read "Rita Molenaar" instead. That means, "Rita Windmiller" But it sounds almost exactly like "Murderer" in Dutch. Only hilarious. Is this really a society where all criticism of public figures has to take place through satire or allegory?

So back to the Muslims. The founder of the Dutch ex-Muslam group, Ehsan Jami, says he's not anti-Islam, but he also says insulting things about the prophet Mohammed _ it's his right. And of course it's also his right not to be attacked on the street.
However, wouldn't he be more likely to win sympathy for his cause among Muslims if he just stuck to the point?
A rival group of Dutch Ex-Muslims (!!) has formed to protest for a less confrontational approach. They announced their formation in an Amsterdam mosque (!!!).
Jami argues there's no need to let Muslims play 'victim' and they should be able to take a few barbs. Nobody was murdered over "Piss Christ" in the U.S.

But again, why intentionally say things that you know are going to offend, when it's not even your primary goal?

I hope Jami lives to be older and wiser. Or that I do.

Monday, September 10, 2007

(photo credit: flickr's supersuus)
Talk about long-term planning. The Dutch are working on plans to deal with rising sea levels due to global warming through the year 2200.

"We want to make sure that there's still a Netherlands a century from now," Tineke Huizinga, the country's top water official, told state broadcaster NOS.
"We don't want to just let the water flow and all have to move to Germany."


Now that's thinking ahead!

(photo by goya)
The two most awesomest ideas are re-routing the Rhine and building "breaker" islands off the coast.
Me, I want to put a rubber dinghy in my attic. Just in case.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Dervis defends Melkert / UNDP - NRC

More in the way of public service; I notice that previous posts on the Ad Melkert/UNDP saga have drawn some traffic; so here's this: The Dutch daily paper NRC Handelsblad has an interview with Kemal Dervis today, defending Melkert.

(oversimplified synopsis of the story so far for those who don't want to read in: some conservatives in Washington think Melkert should leave the UNDP because of the "Cash for Kim" scandal, and some liberals think that's only because the conservatives blame Melkert for the downfall of Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank).

I think I can claim 'fair use' if I translate the single best NRC quote:

"Mr. Melkert has my support as colleague and as his boss. Last week I spoke with authorities in Germany, France and Britain, and they all support Mr. Melkert. Why is this so personal? It could be because of matters in his political past in the Netherlands, there could be matters dating from his time at the World Bank. You know, I was a politician, he was too. In politics, people make enemies."

On the question of why the UNDP wasn't agreeing to a U.N. ethics investigation into the whistleblower question, despite requests from the U.N. secretary general, Dervis said there is an investigation into the scandal, and on the whistleblower UNDP is following its own rules (which are not the same as those of the U.N.; he hopes to harmonize with U.N. rules in the future).
One other quote: "Despite all the commotion, outcry, there is not one piece of evidence of any personal fraud."

Sison Protest III

Today was the third protest in the Netherlands about the arrest of Jose Maria Sison. It was held outside the court house where he had his second appearance, this time to discuss whether he can be held another 90 days on murder charges.

Actually, I probably would stop posting these entries, but now I notice I'm getting a lot of hits on the site from the Philipinnes, so I consider it a public service.

Here, Luis Jalandoni was starting to say that the Dutch have a lot to lose (in terms of international reputation and ultimately Shell oil interests) if information from the police raids in Utrecht is passed on to Philippine authorities and used to persecute NDF sympathizers (or non-sympathizers!) there.

Dutch prosecutors and Sison's lawyer say that won't happen _ but Koppe didn't rule out the chance some information could go through a back door from the Dutch secret service to the CIA to Manila.

The CPP and Sison are on the E.U.'s terrorism list, after all.

This is lawyer Victor Koppe, explaining to Sison supporters what happened inside. Supporters were crowded around to hear what he had to say (but he still couldn't talk about the evidence).
And here are the supporters. I thought most of them were the same as last time, but a handful of new faces, and maybe a few more people actually. Some were standing near a fence showing signs to passing cars. I still don't think most Dutch know this is even happening: they're much more concerned with internal politics right now.

Financial Times, Financieele Dagblad

Dutch financial daily "Het Financieele Dagblad" has a whole new look. This stunningly stylish revamp entails a change from white color paper to pink color paper, and also trying to rebrand themselves as the "F.D." (Pronounced "F.T." in Dutch). This new look for Het Financieele Dagblad reminds me of something, but I can't for the life of me think what it is...Oh yeah, *that's* it. The Financial Times, a little-known British financial publication, uses almost exactly the same color paper. Maybe you know them as the "FT." Boy, I hope nobody confuses a high-quality paper like Het Financieele Dagblad with that rag out of London.
/sarcasm. There's a good old British saying "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Balkenende & Guerrilla Girl

These awesome t-shirts 'inspired' by the iconic Che Guevara image were part of the political campaign that got Christian Democrat (i.e. conservative) Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende elected last year. Oh, the delicious irony!

Today, Jan Pronk, the guy hoping to become the Howard Dean of Dutch politics (that is, Labor Party chairman) called Balkenende a "liar" for misleading the Dutch into Iraq.

"We were rushed into that war on the basis of lies," he said. Where have I heard that before?

Sticklers for detail like me will remember that the Dutch technically didn't rush into anything, but had a more nuanced stance on the war, namely that they supported it "politically but not militarily."

Politically but not militarily? Whatever.

Later, the country participated in peacekeeping. In a comparatively peaceful province (al-Muthanna). But I digress.

Pronk later said he "was a little sorry." But he still thinks this country is ruled "by a person who has lied."

In politics, it often seems, the goal is either:
a) a race to see who can say the stupidest thing first or
b) a fight not to have to retract the stupid thing you said.

Meanwhile, the Dutch press is in a tizzy about "Guerrilla Girl," identified (first by website Geenstijl, who else?) as Tanja Nijmeijer, from the small Dutch town of Denekamp.

(photo courtesy GeenStijl).
She studied Spanish, started hanging out in leftist squatter circles in the Dutch city of Groningen, and wound up traveling to Latin America to help impoverished people.

She's fighting for FARC in Colombia these days, and Colombian daily El Tiempo is leaking out the dirty details of her diary bit by bit, milking this story for everything it's worth.

Apparently none of the guerrillas use condoms, and big-breasted bimbos get favors from El Commandante. Her diary was recovered after a raid in which they were caught bathing and had to run into the jungle half-naked!!

Titillating story, no?

So how does this all tie together?

Proceeds from those Balkenende shirts go to a good cause: an organization called COMUNARTE by a young Colombian named Elkin Ramos, in which rather than fight turf wars, gangs are encouraged to dance instead.

Or so they say.

So, if you're either "with us or against us," then you're either a Balkenende or a Pronk, or a Nijmeijer or a Che or an Uribe.

But maybe, just maybe, if Us is Them, and the world isn't all black and white, and you can support a war politically but not militarily, you could choose to be a Ramos instead...

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Ice Creamed: Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's

(exhibit "A")

When I first arrived in Amsterdam, the only high quality ice cream available was Haagen Dazs, and it was only available at 6.25 per 500ml at the Albert Heijn, the country's dominant grocery chain.
That's US$8.53, at today's exchange rate. They added in Ben & Jerry's somewhere along the way, at 5.25 euro (US$7.17). I think they may have cut those prices by a few cents about two years back.

Anyhow, the point is, the chickens are finally coming home to roost. SUCK IT Haagen Dazs and Ben & Jerry's! And tell your masters (That's General Mills/Nestle and Unilever) the grim reaper has arrived!

Das Lidl (the German chain with the Wal-Mart type labor practices) and Dirk van de Broek (The cheap-o Dutch retailer whose name means "Dirk of the Pants") have both introduced cheaper versions of super high quality ice cream in the past month.

At the Dirk on Heinekenplein (where I do my shopping when I can) the new "Noblissima" brand is 2.99 euros. As you can see from exhibit A, they have Cookies & Cream, among others.

In exhibit B, you can see the Lidl sells the "Prestige" brand at that same price, featuring "Macadamia Nut Brittle," my personal favorite.

(exhibit "B")

Admittedly, it's not *quite* as good as the Haagen Dazs version, but it's definitely in the same ballpark.

Albert Heijn has stopped selling Haagen Dazs completely (they pulled it from the shelves in April), I guess because they have a deal with Unilever on Ben & Jerry's. But B&J prices have already been cut to 4.79 euros (US$6.54). (Exhibit C:)

And I bet the best is yet to come.

B&J have to fight against Albert Hein's in-house brand "Albert Heijn Excellent," available for 3.99 euro.

In other words, capitalism, in the form of price competition, is finally arriving in this cartel-run country.

The Oracle of Amsterdam predicts all purveyors of overpriced ice cream will feel the pain very, very soon. Or better yet _ commoditization! Margin squeeze! Affordable ice cream for all! Die, you consumer-hating corporate swine!

Die! Die! Die!

Can you tell I get worked up about this?

Especially Haagen Dazs must be suffering due to getting the 'boot' from Albert Heijn.
Apparently HD is still for sale at the chains "C1000" and "Super de Boer," but their owner Laurus is a step away from Chapter 11 anyhow (okay 2 steps), and they are like the dingleberries sticking to the backside of Albert Heijn in terms of size.

I've never even seen a Super de Boer in Amsterdam, and just one C1000, once.

The only way normal people can get Haagen Dazs now is from a pizza delivery company (or at the HD shop on Leidseplein). Delivery costs 6.75 (US$9.22) per pint.

Ha, ha! 'Tis to laugh.

-Your friendly neighborhood consumer advocate.