Sunday, November 30, 2008

Zwarte Piet 2008

I don't have so much to add to what I've said about Zwarte Piet in the past.

To me, Zwarte Piet is a racist anachronism and should be transformed into something a little less offensive.

It's not difficult to decipher that this 'servant' to a wise white man, with an impossibly black face, big red lips, and nappy hair, is a throwback to the colonial era.

Now, all that remains is convincing 16 million Dutch.

On a philosophical note, 'winning arguments' is not about proving people wrong. Trying to prove people wrong is only a recipe for making them defensive.

The most you can do in a discussion is try to introduce doubt into people's minds about something and perhaps show them that there are other ways of thinking that could also be attractive.

Easier said than done in real life! Anyhow, here's me playing Socrates. I plan to do this from time to time when I meet someone wearing blackface, as the opportunity presents itself.

I had the kid gloves on, and of course we reached no major epiphanies in a short conversation. But it was interesting how quickly everybody became nervous.

So, in the spirit of fair-mindedness, I want to ask myself where might I be wrong about Zwarte Piet and to try to see things more from a Dutch viewpoint.

I was recently talking about Zwarte Piet with one of my Dutch friends _ let's call him "Sander."

Sander repeated some arguments that I've heard in the past, about how he never perceived Zwarte Piet as a negative figure _ rather, Piet was likeable. While Sinterklaas was aloof and unapproachable, Piet was boisterous and friendly.

I guess I would say _ maybe. On the other hand, he's also dumb as a box of rocks; a subservient clown; and there's the danger he might stuff you into his bag.

Another hard-to-answer argument in favor of Zwarte Piet is: yes, it's racist, but so what? Is it really that bad an influence on children? Lighten up!

That's a hard one to answer. I don't believe violent video games hurt kids, so why should I think Piet is so important?
I would say, I don't think exposure to Zwarte Piet, by itself, makes people turn out racist. It's just one negative, offensive model. It's an embarrassment to the people who participate, like calling mentally disabled people "retards."
The world will not come to a halt if the Zwarte Piet tradition continues in its current form _ it would just be a better place without it.


My concern at the moment is what to do about my son (2.75 yrs old), and I have to say it's difficult to know what's the right thing.

I mean, demonstratively challenging all the Zwarte Piets around the country on their appearance in front of him is not a viable option _ let alone trying to keep him away from all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of advertisements.

I don't think I could explain my distaste for Piet to him if I tried, so for now I'm just muddling through, avoiding Piet when I can and focusing on the Sinterklaas part of the story.


It seems the debate over Piet has gotten more venomous since last year.

I heard a pretty good analysis from one of Amsterdam's most powerful Surinamese politicians, Hannah Beliot. She said that what's happened lately is that Zwarte Piet has been adopted by the 'know-nothing' elements of Dutch society as a kind of prestige object.
This camp has decided that Piet is a vital symbol for all Dutch culture [even though the tradition is not as old as they like to think] and that they won't "lose" Piet to political correctness or any thing else.

Recently a pair of artists attempted to hold an anti-Zwarte Piet march in Eindhoven, but they were forced to cancel after receiving threats.

Most of the vitriol directed at them was because they were foreigners, deemed incapable of understanding Dutch tradition.

So much for tolerance and 'vrijheid van meningsuiting.' (Freedom of Speech), some other much-praised Dutch cultural virtues.

I hope the anti-Pieters push ahead with plans to make a film about the racism inherent in Zwarte Piet, a topic that in my view is on its way to becoming a taboo in this country.

For people who can't get enough of Piet, I recommend as a starting point for more reading.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Amsterdam's Other Drug War


Okay, so Amsterdam's decision to close some coffeeshops got all the attention from the mainstream media.

Meanwhile, on the same day, the city announced a major new initiative that should come as a relief to countless tourists.

"Amsterdam bindt strijd aan met dealers nepdope."

Or "Amsterdam joins the battle against dealers of fake drugs."

"The Central Burrough is tackling problems and criminality caused by the sale of fake drugs in the center of Amsterdam.
The problems caused by so-called 'fake-dope-dealers' in the Red Light District appears to be increasing, judging by signals from the police and inhabitants. The police department has ticketed almost 1,000 unique persons for trading in fake drugs."


"It's difficult to catch fake-dope-dealers. Unless they move to, for instance, robbery, they aren't actually committing any criminal act: their wares are not [Schedule 1] drugs; they are usually just baking soda or little peppermints. "

"Victims, often tourists, scarcely report it because they don't want to be brought into connection with drugs."

"During a conference on Nov. 7, all partners acknowledged the size and urgency of the problem."


Friday, November 21, 2008

Dutch Weather

Though among the weakest of all blog posts, a nice one for my Dutch weather reports collection.

It says "Regular showers with chance of hail, storm, and later in the day also (wet) snow. Also, heavy wind gusts. Between the showers, also some sun."

Special bonus: the "kans op kans" seems like a mistake but maybe it's an expression I don't know. "A chance of a chance of hail."

Monday, November 10, 2008

Five Embarrassing Mistakes I've Made In Dutch

So you don't have to...

1)"Mag ik de spleet erwten soep?" = Not, 'can I have the split pea soup,' but 'can I have the split pussy soup.'


2)"Jij hebt volkoren gelijk." = Not, 'You're completely right,' but 'You're full-grain right.'

3) "Ik hou van kersens" = Not 'I love cherries' but 'I love cherrieses'

(darwin bell)

4) "Ik doe mijn beest" = Not, 'I'm doing my best,' but 'I'm doing my beast.'


(After hearing someone's age)

"Oh, je ziet er niet uit." = Not 'oh, you don't look it,' but 'Oh, you don't look good.'


Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Obama President!

Ah, I can't stay up late tonight, so I thought I would end the suspense and just call this election early.

My thoughts, at this historic moment? Thanks for not asking, I'll tell you anyhow.

Obama was a strong candidate who had quite a bit of good fortune in running after an extremely unpopular Republican administration; and it was the financial crisis that gave him a landslide victory.

The big picture is that Obama inherits leadership of a nation with grave problems, and he will need another few servings of luck to go with his talent if he's going to make a big difference in setting things right.

The small picture is, today is a good day for race relations.

Thank goodness that after today I will never have to listen to another European lecture me on how incurably racist America is.

Of course it is _ and so is every European country, especially the Netherlands. America is several decades ahead in coming to terms with that problem. Call it our 'original sin'.

What a transformation the U.S. has undergone since WWII. Still, if Obama hadn't come along now, it might have been another 50 years (who knows) before a black person were elected.

But now that he has come, it's inevitably going to be a watershed: after this, anything is possible.

So, congratulations and good luck to you Obama. I give you one day for a media honeymoon, and then it's time to get cynical. You are a politician after all.


Condolences to John McCain. I wish I knew what the world would look like now if you had won the Republican nomination back in 2000, when you coulda woulda maybe shoulda.



Monday, November 3, 2008

Nuon Posts a Loss? Wake Up, Netherlands


The following post, while important in its way, is too boring to read. So be warned. Stop now while there's still time.

It's a sad paradox: there is no industry that's bigger, or more important than the energy industry. Yet it is so deadly boring that it's impossible to get anybody to read about it, let alone think about it.

No matter how much we hate those monthly bills.

The Dutch energy company Nuon posted a net loss for the third quarter.

This despite enacting rate hike after rate hike in the past several years.

What's going on here? And why should we care?

Well, Nuon calls itself a "company" but in fact its is owned entirely by city, province and federal governments.

So in one sense I suppose it doesn't really matter if this "company" makes or loses money. You have very little choice but to pay your electricity bill, and if Nuon loses money, the governments that own it will have to raise taxes to cover the difference. If it makes money, then governments can lower other kinds of taxes.

However, Nuon pays its executives and managers as if they were in the private sector, so to the extent they are doing a poor/ineffective/inefficient job, they are effectively throwing away money or stealing it from the public.

And now we come to the point:

I've read many and many an earnings report in my day, but never have I seen a report more lacking in transparency than what they published today. (Here it is in English, for anybody insane enough to care).

The only facts we are given are that sales were flat, while profit plummeted from EUR179 million profit to a EUR2 million loss.

Why is this?

They say part of the reason was losses on "fair value items" which I think means investments.

Here's another of the reasons for the loss, in Greek. Don't try to understand this, you cannot:

"The efforts in connection with strategic processes including the unbundling of Nuon into a network company and a production and supply company have led to an increase in, notably, ICT and personnel expenses. Other expenses concern the credit crunch, which necessitated a revaluation of an investment relating to a cross border lease."

Nuon spends a fair amount of its press release grousing about a Dutch government decision, that ordered energy companies to split apart their generation plants and delivery network (i.e. wires!) into two separate companies.

The government did that because they are imagining a future when lots of generation companies (read: alternative energy companies) will want access to the grid, and they don't want the big energy co's playing dirty tricks to keep them out.

So, to make sure everybody plays nice, in the future the grid will be run independently.

Nuon fought that decision tooth and nail, like the other 3 generation companies, to protect their monopoly. But Nuon (and Essent) had a special secret second reason.

Here's where it gets complicated, but it's juicy if you can understand it:


Before this decision came down the pipe, Nuon had struck a deal with U.S. companies to help them cheat U.S. tax authorities _ sorry, I mean 'take advantage of a U.S. tax loophole' _ and split the proceeds.

How did this work? The exact details and numbers have never been made public, but here's the basic idea:

Nuon sold its network to the U.S. companies, and then immediately leased it back for 100 years. Huh?

Because the U.S. "owners" were able to claim a tax deduction for depreciation of the assets.

An electricity network is a valuable thing, and the tax savings on its depreciation was a huge number.

There's a lot of room for variations on the theme above, but that's the basic idea.

Returning to the idea of Nuon as private "company": this kind of scam, I mean deal, called "Cross Boarder Leasing" is a very much private sector behavior. Organizations on two sides of the Atlantic colluding, I mean, cooperating, to lower their combined taxes. One can wonder why Nuon and Essent were allowed to do this. An answer would be LITTLE OVERSIGHT and LITTLE COMPREHENSION of the deal among their shareholders, i.e., governments; and of course little interest or understanding by the public.

The two things go hand and hand, n'est pas?

There was a buyback clause somewhere in the 100-year lease agreement, just in case Nuon had to repossess the network for some reason. Say, for instance, by order of the Dutch government.

Which is what happened, effective July 1, 2008.

So now Nuon
a) no longer gets the expected benefit of its side of the deal
b) probably has to pay its U.S. partners for the unexpected losses on their side of the deal.

Without the details of the deal, it's impossible to know how much money Nuon lost as a result; things could have been hedged or insured in various ways.

But I believe the company itself bandied about numbers like 1 billion euros as their 'worst case' loss when they were lobbying against the Dutch government doing this.


How do I know all this stuff? A little bird told me. Otherwise stated: Nuon, feel free to contact me to deny it.

Or maybe I'm dead wrong. Still sure would be nice to understand why it is that Nuon is hiking rates, & energy prices were sky high for most of the 3rd quarter but they are still losing money.

Nuon shareholders, are you listening?
Dutch press? NRC?

Congratulations, Mr. Hamilton

The name is almost...presidential...

(I have kind of a backlog of posts, but this is one that can't really wait)

I know absolutely nothing about Formula-1, but Lewis Hamilton was in town a few months back. A very impressive person. I predict he will not self-destruct the way so many stars do.

Photos by me!