30.12.2010

Pot calls kettle black, pan needed

The Swedish bureaucracy watchdogs, Ombudsman for Justice (Justitieombudsmannen, JO) and Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekanslern, JK) have been actively criticising various authorities in the country for unduly long processing times. For a good reason.

At the same time, it has turned out that JO is unable to measure its own processing times and the JK's processing times have doubled over the past five years.

So, the bureaucracies in the country are slow and arrogant, and therefore these two bureaucracies have been set up to monitor them. Now that the monitoring bureaucracies have become slow and arrogant, what to do? Obviously, set up a new bureaucracy to monitor these two!

I am quite convinced that the Finnish authorities (Justice Chancellor  / Oikeuskansleri, Parliamentary Ombudsman for Justice / Eduskunnan oikeusasiamies) face similar challenges: insufficient resources, more things to do than they can achieve. And they crave for more resources so that they could do good things.

Of course, everywhere the laws of nature are the same: bureaucracies can only expand and get more responsibilities; they very seldom scope down on their own, because every organization wishes to prove how useful and important it is.

In the private sector, companies run out of money, and when owners do not get any dividends, they'll order changes in leadership until something happens. The companies then start to really think what they actually have to do and what not. That leads to rationalization. Not always pleasant, but unavoidable and, in the big picture, extremely useful.

But the public sector does not run out of money, because it can always rise taxes (until it meets the Laffer curve). If the voters disagree, the public organizations can always drop the bottom layer of the bureaucracy: if budget cuts threaten police leadership, you take out the cops from the beat. If cuts threaten hospital bureaucracy, you reduce nurses and doctors until the budget is in balance. The voters soon learn.

Therefore, I think it is an extremely good thing that the Greek and Irish governments are defaulting. It just might make people think. Of course, there's no guarantee that anyone wakes up, but there's a chance.

25.12.2010

Ice-fishing on Lake Pielinen

Christmas day. Peace on Earth, at least on this corner of Earth. Went to check up the fish nets with my in-laws and my son. In case you don't know how ice-fishing is done over here, I'll tell you.



This is fishing with nets under the ice. You might wonder how to put the fish nets under the ice in the first place. I don't have any pictures of that, but there are two ways: either you can leave a thin nylon rope underwater before the lake is frozen - mark the end points with floaters and tree twigs so you find the rope later - or just wait for the lake to freeze properly and then make holes in the ice, and use long poles or sticks to put the nylon rope in its place under the ice cover. This is bronze age technology - except for the nylon.

For one fish net, the rope is about 30 meters long, and the ends are attached to sticks or fir-tree twigs that stick up from the ice so that it is easy to find them. So, now that you have two holes in the ice and a rope between them under the ice, you attach your net to one end of the rope and pull the other end to pull the fishnet to its place under the ice. And in a day or two, you can go back and open the holes and check if you caught any fish. Repeat every other day or so, through the winter. That's what we did today.

We went by car, driving on the ice. The ice layer is maybe 30 cm thick so it carries a car very easily and without risk, though the usual procedure is still that we take off the seat belts when on frozen lake. There's nothing you can collide with, and it's not even possible to stop very quickly, so the belt is not adding any safety, an it's nice to think that should the ice turn out to be weak, you can get out of the car quickly.

Note, the pictures are a bit blurry - today we went to the ice around the time of sunset, 2PM, so it was getting dark, and it was a cloudy day, so even with f/1.8 the pictures are grainy. But though the day is short, it doesn't get dark very quickly, and you can work for an hour or two even after the sun has gone down. It's all white around you, so even the tiniest light is enough for working, if not for natural-light photography, or finding your way around.

This Christmas, there's not that much snow yet in Karelia -  just 15-20 cm, much less than in Helsinki - so fishing is convenient: you can drive anywhere on the ice, and just park right next to the bigger of the holes in the ice. This is the main hole which is used for pulling the net up and seeing if there's any catch. Most of the equipment is left at this place for all winter so that you don't need to carry it back and forth: there is a shovel for snow, a drill called kaira to make small holes in the ice, a large iron-pointed ice pick called tuura for breaking the ice, plus some smaller things.

The main hole has two or three nets going out to different directions. The hole is about 50 cm x 50 cm and has a styrofoam lid - with some soft snow on top of it - that insulates it from frost so that the water doesn't freeze too thickly overnight. When you arrive at the spot, first you take out the snow that is on the lid as additional insulator, then take away the lid.

Then you apply the large ice pick and break the ice cover from the main hole, and take out the slush from the water.

Standing right next to the main hole, there's a post on which there is a roll of nylon line in a sort of winch. You take the end of this nylon string, and pull it to the marker at the other end of the fish net, letting the string unroll from the winch. Once at the other end of the net, you drill a hole in the ice - the hole needs to be only about 10 cm in diameter. Through this hole, you push a stick which has a steel wire hook at the end, and use the hook to pull up the part of nylon string that is at the end of the fish net below the ice. Get the end of the net, untie it from the nylon string under the ice, and tie it to the end of the string that is attached to the winch.


Now, come back to the main hole. Use the stick with hook to pull up the other end of the fishing net through the main hole. And voilá, you can start pulling up the fish net through the main hole; the nylon rope is extended from the winch roll next to you, as the net pulls its end under the ice.
Get the net from under the ice - you don't need to take it all out from under the ice, just enough to see where the fish are. And here's your catch!




The fish is alive and struggling, so the next thing to do is to take the killing cudgel. Hit the fish at the back of the head to break its neck, and it won't suffer. And won't squirm.

Then take the fish out of the net. Here my father-in-law uses his patented tool - made of a piece of wood and a nail - to help the fish through the net. By the way, latex gloves are nice here. In the bad old days, you would do this with your bare hands. I can assure you that very healthy exterior blood circulation is necessary.



Now the fish is out, dead but fresh. It's cleaned on the spot: cut away the fins with scissors, cut open the belly and remove the guts, and use a scaling iron to remove the scales. No need to mess up the kitchen.

And then, just put the fish in your box. Once all of the net is checked, use the winch to pull the net back to its place. Go back to the other end of the net, untie it from the nylon string on top of the ice, tie it again to the string that is under the ice, and release it through the small hole so that it again fully under the ice, ready for catching new fish.

Repeat this procedure for all your nets, put your fish in your insulating box - the point is to not let them freeze as that spoils the taste - drive back, and your fishing trip complete. Drive home and heat up the stove for cooking!

A couple of years ago we did the same thing, but weather had been much warmer. Thus, the ce was too weak for driving, but a bicycle also works nicely!

Can most people be better than average?

There is a popularly referred controversy: "most individuals think they are better drivers than the average". People think that this is not possible, and that this shows how individuals falsely regard themselves superior to others. But I think the statement is actually at least partly true: most people are  better drivers than the average, although not perhaps in the way people themselves think about it.

A common belief is that it is a mathematical impossibility that most people would be better-than-average drivers. But people are confusing average with median. If we take "average" to mean arithmetic average, things become  different. For driving skill, you do not have to assume  that the skill function has  a "normal" Gaussian distribution.

Of course, mostly it is down to the definition of "what is a good driver". I'll take a simplified definition that a good driver gets from place A to place B, safely and at reasonable speed, without causing distress to others. I tend to think that most people are normal drivers, a minority are better than normal, and a small minority are really horribly bad, dangerous and irritating drivers.

Let's put this into numbers, with a population of 10 drivers, their driving skill graded on a scale from 1 to 10. Six of them are ordinary drivers, and get a score 7. One handles the car very well, gets score 8, and one handles the car very well and is also exceptionally well aware of other traffic, can handle difficult environmental hazards such as rain and snow safely etc, so she gets a 9.

Then there is the grandpa who is 85 years old, half blind and drives according to a rule book from 1954, though slowly. He gets a score 5. And, finally, there's the young bloke who thinks he is The Stig, but does not control the car nearly as well as he thinks, ignores rules, and drives recklessly. He gets a score 3 for driving skill.

And voilà, we have a population of 10 where the average driver score is 6.5, and 8 out of 10 drivers are better than average. Not everyone can be better than average, but it is possible that most people are.

6.12.2010

Male Genital Mutilation

 
OK, I'm falling for it. I know this is what the Greens wanted - it's a provocation and the more people talk about it, the happier they are.

But still, I think this might backfire on them. I mean, of course, the new election campaign logo, which takes the Finnish coat of arms, puts is on a green background and includes the text "Uusi Suomi" (New Finland).

Twisting national emblems is always a bit risky. Sure, there is a good point. The Finnish heraldic lion has been adopted (as a tattoo,  necklace or T-shirt emblem) by some of the skinhead idiots who just hate any foreigners, particularly dark-skinned. Therefore it's nice that others also use it. The lion shouldn't belong only to the obnoxious xenophobes. But mutilating the coat of arms with ugly colours isn't proper (and could be unlawful).

Strangely, although the lion is now set in a background of faded, slightly dirty green, the lion is still wielding a straight Western sword, and trampling on the Eastern scimitar, which for the Finns, traditionally reminds of the swords of the Cossacks, who the Tsars used for intimidation of their subjects and enemies alike. The scimitar is down there, and has been since the times of Gustav Vasa. I would actually have expected Greens to switch the blades, because that would have been consistent with their policies.

But the Greens didn't stop with changing colour.  They just couldn't resist castrating the lion. Why on earth do you have to take the distinctly male heraldic lion, leave everything else there, but remove the symbolic genitals? What does it tell about you? That you want to wuss along with the Swedes?

And then, Uusi Suomi website isn't thrilled about this trademark infringement, either.

War, war, war

It's Finnish Independence day. Time for celebration, right? Well, yes, but what I see is very little celebration for independence. What I see is just more and more talk about the wars, fighting, war veterans.

Hey, wake up. It's too late. The youngest Finnish veterans of Second World War are now around 85 years old. There's not a lot more we can really do for them. There are so few left that they can be adequately taken care for. They've earned the respect they now enjoy but I see little point in glorifying their sacrifices. After all, to repeat some of my earlier posts, I have the Pattonesque idea that war is not about dying for your country; it's about letting the other poor bastard die for his.

The veteran issue has been becoming more and more obsessive, although 20 years have now passed since the USSR ceased to exist and fewer and fewer of the actual fighting men are still among us. At least on TV and official celebrations, the independence day is mostly focused on wars.

So, what does independence really mean now? Many say that Finland is not really independent after joining EU and adopting the euro. True, joining this federalist-obsessed crowd has limited our sovereignty. I don't think that switching Finnmarks to the euro currency means nearly as much as the European treaties, some of which limit quite a lot what we can and can not do in this country. But of course the international treaties also have their good sides. And whether a member of EU or not, small countries like Finland are more and more dependent on international trade, globalization, exchange of people, money and ideas.

I think our current president Tarja Halonen has done remarkably little to point out any new direction for the country. Still, 2.2 million Finns are today going to watch tonight's reception where she shakes hands with an array of more or less colourful guests. Is that the best content we can give to our independence day? Watch on TV how our representatives get drunk for us?

What I'd give as an example for a suitable action on an independence day would be to announce that we withdraw from the utterly stupid Ottawa treaty and will continue to take care of our defence independently, thank you. That we decide ourselves who can immigrate to this country and who cannot, blast the ECJ. That we enforce legislation that guarantees equal rights and equal obligations for each citizen, forget the ECHR. That would show some independent spirit.

27.11.2010

Elementary Finns


A few of my English-speaking friends have asked what is the fuss about this party "Perussuomalaiset" in Finland, and what it actually represents, and whether people should be afraid of this extreme right populist party - a particular concern for those who have a non-Aryan skin colour. And what even the name of the party actually means.

Well, no. No need to be afraid.

Basically, the party does not have much coherent ideology except anger towards the elite. It is not "far right" for any meaningful definition of political "right". If you look at their policy statements, they are mostly somewhat to the left of major political parties, quite close to the Greens and the Left League (Vasemmistoliitto) though with some exceptions. Their views on big corporations, taxation, redistributive policies, etc are definitely on the left. They just take distance from the more absurd forms of radical feminism, statism, political correctness and immigration frenzy that are prevalent in the red and watermelon parties, thus Greens and Left League plus the traditional "left" SDP like to brand them as far right.

And the name of the party, what does "Perussuomalaiset" mean? Their own translation to English (well, not their own, since they have none, but the one in Wikipedia) is True Finns, but don't be confused; it's not really about racial purity of the Ugric tribes. Another translation would be Basic Finns and that gets closer. I would perhaps call them Elementary Finns - just like "peruskoulu" is "elementary school". People perceive that they are low-income and unemployed people with poor education, but that's not quite right. The ethos is more about the "betrayed workers, pensioners and middle class". Ordinary people. A Tea Party that speaks for a welfare state.

And why Perussuomalaiset is not dangerous to anyone is because they are not going to gain much real power, whatever the number of seats in parliament. They lack proper internal organization and discipline, and they don't have support in the large and important public sector machinery. You cannot do serious politics in Finland unless you have a significant share of your own, devoted agents in ministries, quangos and other organizations that distribute our tax juice.

There surely are a few racists among Perussuomalaiset, but they're on the fringe, and generally, Finns are not easily attracted by extreme, violent political movements. Events around 1918 provided a fairly long-lasting vaccination, since the civil war and the bitter feud that followed taught us a lot. But the primary reason for Elementary Finns not being a danger is their lack of disciplined organisation. There's not much tradition of adhering to party line and shutting up - rather to the contrary. Defections in and out of the party are the norm. Timo Soini is very popular but he is certainly no Führer and his supporters are no stromtroopers.

The long-time established power party, Social Democrats (SDP), is naturally horrified, because they are staying permanently behind Kokoomus (the conservatives) and fell behind Keskusta (Center party) again, and they now risk becoming the fourth largest party, with Perussuommalaiset closing in. That effectively means an end to the era that lasted for 50 years where they could build a power base of political figures in government, high officials in ministries, and domination in the trade unions. Now, only trade unions are left to them, and worldwide economic changes have eroded even that power base (and even there, some big ones fall).

Yes, Perussuomalaiset is a populist party. They have hardly any actual policy, they have little new ideas about how to build the economy for the nation. "Tax the rich" and "stop the waste" does not carry very far. The requirement for better immigration control is a contribution to actual policy, but there the other parties have quickly come along the same lines. However, overall we could say that Perussuomalaiset is not really any worse off regarding having some vision for future than others - particularly SDP who is utterly lost after it achieved its historical goals (the targets of the SDP party program of 1903 were largely achieved by the 1960's, and since 1980's the party's been just a machinery to be exploited by opportunists) and cannot admit that it is now a conservative party that only reflects on its own past and does not even know what it wants to conserve.

Therefore SDP has to try some gambles. When a fire erupted at a Tampere pizza restaurant that was run by an Iraqi man, and three inhabitants in the house were killed by smoke, senior SDP frontbenchers Päivi Lipponen (wife of former chairman and PM Paavo Lipponen) and Kimmo Kiljunen (who had his very own expenses scandal a while ago) condemned racism and required everyone else to perform purity rituals and join a front against the xenophobic elements behind this attack.

This backfired. In about one day the police cracked the case. It turned out that the arson was not motivated by any racism. The restaurant keeper himself, and three of his friends and relatives, are now held for aggravated arson and involuntary manslaughter. It's not been handled in court yet and police is not releasing all details, so it's largely speculative, but the case looks like an attempt at insurance fraud that got severely out of hand. And SDP looks now even more discredited and ridiculous.

So, it is possible that Elementary Finns will overtake SDP in terms of number of members in Parliament, but since it does take decades to renew the machinery in ministries and other politically appointed posts, they will not be able to run policy in this country. No worry. And even if they could, no worry from that point of view. Their socialist policies would be the real concern if they were to get any real power.

26.11.2010

What you measure is what you get

The Helsinki metropolitan mass transit authority says that rail traffic is more efficient than buses.

They're doing a clever sting here. The comparison is based on passenger kilometres. X passenger kilometres means that the vehicle moves for one kilometer with X passengers on board.

What passenger kilometres specifically does not measure is that people get from their places of departure to their places of destination quickly and comfortably.

It's a no-brainer that if you concentrate more of the public transport to fewer radial lines that make the trips longer, you get more efficient setup for producing passenger kilometres. At the same time, you are worsening the services for people, because people don't want to perform passenger kilometres. People want to get from their home to work, and from work to home, and from home to places of sports, culture, friends, whatever, and preferably as quickly and comfortably as possible.

Reducing direct bus connections, particularly the "lateral" buses that do not go to metropolitan centers but directly between regional cetres, would surely improve the efficiency of passenger kilometres, but will make people suffer.

Here you can see the management principle in action: what you measure is what you get. If you measure passenger kilometres, that's what your organization will deliver to you. Forget the end users, they're just a nuisance.

Grumpy politicians

When Jeremy Clarkson called the UK prime minister Gordon Brown a "one-eyed Scottish idiot", at least two and possibly three groups of people were offended.

The visually impaired had their feelings hurt - The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) said: "Any suggestion that equates disability with incompetence is totally unacceptable. We would be happy to help Mr Clarkson understand the positive contribution people with sight loss make to society." I think this is a misunderstanding: Clarkson did not equate disability with incompetence. He just said that in this case, the two properties are present right there in one person. I am actually quite convinced that Jeremy Clarkson appreciates any positive contributions to society that blind people make, and that he would be happy to have a half-blind but competent Scot for a Prime Minister, because competence - and fairness, and other admirable properties - are what count.

The Scots were offended. Lord Foulkes, a former Labour Scottish minister, said he was "outraged" at Clarkson's comments. Well, he would be.

Representatives for idiots did not turn up to tell how inappropriate it is to associate them with Mr. Brown, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that somewhere, the League for the Mentally Impaired (LeftMI) expressed their outrage. They just couldn't write the address of Guardian correctly so that the letter would get through.

The British have a tradition for colourful parliamentary insults. In June, health minister Simon Burns called John Bercow, the speaker of parliament, a "stupid, sanctimonious dwarf" in the Commons. He had to apologise and say he was sorry for any offence he had caused after the insult was branded "derogatory and deeply offensive" by the Walking with Giants Foundation (WWGF). BASists (British Association of Sanctimonousts) has not yet come forward with a comment, nor has LeftMI which represents the stupid as well as the idiots.

In a more recent case, David Cameron said that Burns's driver had accidentally hit the Speaker's car while reversing. Bercow said he was "not happy" about the incident. Mr Burns retorted: "So which one are you?". And, again, Bercow was offended, as well as WWGF.

I think Bercow should just have said one word: "Grumpy". With that, he would have scored.

Some very surprised women

Green Women in Finland are "surprised about the amount of violence experienced by men" and require that this phenomenon is discussed in public.

How surprised they are. In 2004, the Green Women in Finland, along with many other women organizations, expressed their outrage for funding plan for research on violence against men (the money was to come from RAY, the Finnish state monopoly of slot machines.

Well, I suppose this could be called development.

11.11.2010

Armistice Day

English and French papers make headlines like The nation falls silent for 'the glorious dead'.

I think it is time to agree that the World War I is over. Germany paid the final part of war reparations a few weeks ago.

But what buggers me is that the dead are "glorious". How is it glorious to be dead? Some of those who died lived glorious lives, and even performed gloriously when they were killed, but many were, well, just killed. Very ungloriously. The polished pictures about war remembrance are hiding the ugly fact that in war, people kill and get killed. Sometimes it is justified and worth it, sometimes not. Very often, it's something in between. Just like any human activity, it has good sides and bad sides, but the side impacts of war are usually of a different magnitude than most other things.

And my view to the whole business war is that of Patton's:

Don't be a fool and die for your country. Let the other sonofabitch die for his.

Now that's not very glorious.

The warlike Swiss

According to the Telegraph, Herman Van Rompuy says that Euroscepticism leads to war and a rising tide of nationalism is the European Union's "biggest enemy".

Somehow I don't see that the Swiss are attacking everyone around them, even though they are eurosceptic indeed and most male citizens even have a gun at home.

But I understand van Rompuy. He's concerned that the EU citizens aren't entirely happy with the way EU is being run, so it's time to shake up some controversy.

Hey, perhaps you could call the eurosceptics Nazis and declare they are enemy to the people? But this is a good start. Anyone who does not believe in a United States of Europe is a warmonger.

6.11.2010

Lengthening work careers by shortening holidays

What utter rubbish!

The resigning chairman of board of Confederation of Finnish Industries, Sakari Tamminen, is saying that annual leaves of Finnish workers should be made shorter in order to "lengthen the work career".

Again, what utter rubbish!

Finnish holiday benefits are fairly good compared to the U.S. or Japan, for instance. People generally have 4 or 5 weeks of annual leave. Bank holidays and other public holidays are not very extensive.

Finnish holiday scheme is also fairly good when compared to any country in the Third World, where only the nomenclature has nice holidays, and everyone else works more or less all the time, because they cannot afford anything else.

But the Finnish scheme is not that excessively good. There is no significant competitive advantage to gain by shortening holidays. Any addition in nominal annual working time is likely to result in added sickness leaves and other things that effectively reduce productivity. In my opinion, we have reached a perfect balance here and the world is now ready. Let's not rock the boat.

Yes, there is some actual need to lengthen the average working career of people in this country. Far too many people are retiring from working life long before the actual nominal retirement age. Many of these go to "unemployment pension" which is basically a track for people are cannot or will not be employed, for various reasons. Many are also pensioned because of physical or psychological ilnesses that render them incapable of working. The burden of financing the pensions is carried by the working age groups, and that burden is increasing to a point where people don't feel it is feasible to pay high pension contributions and know that you're not getting any real pension yourself. It's a Ponzi scheme.

How does shortening annual leaves from current level help this? In no way whatsoever. To the contrary, even more people will feel that the compensation they get from working is not fair.

This feeling is not at all helped by the fact that many representatives of nomenclature - corporate leaders, staff of these think tanks saying how important it is to work to an older age - are themselves taking generous early retirement packages.

If I had a good share of ownership in some Finnish industries, and therefore had a vote, I'd tell my servants - these people working for employer organizations etc - that they should forget the early retirement packages, because they are making very, very bad PR work.

Entirely not credible.

The State loses tax income!


Pravda announces that the Finnish government loses approximately 18 000 million euros per year in various tax subsidies. That sounds like a lot, but... caveat emptor. Beware if you buy this.

The largest of these "subsidies" is the imputed net rent, which means that if you own the house or apartment where you live, you don't need to pay rent to someone else. You save money, thus you get an imaginary income. Since this imaginary income is currently not taxed, the state is losing money.

Economic theory is abused here to create an impression that the State would somehow be entitled to get more tax money if this imaginary income was calculated and taxed "correctly". The idea is popular among those who oppose the idea that people own their own homes. In a truly developed, progressive state, all housing belongs to government; this makes people less attached to their homes, and they can more easily be ordered to move from one kolkhoz to another. This increases productivity and makes it easier to achieve the targets of the next 5-year plan. Everyone benefits! If you don't believe in this, you deserve to be re-housed in Kolyma.

There have been attempts to impose this tax, at least in the U.K. and Finland in 1970's, but the trials weren't all too popular.

Why? Because the income is imaginary. It's absurd. It's arbitrary, and people who are taxed never see that money and never hold it in their hands. Why do people want to own their homes? First, because they like to be in control of their own lives, particularly the place where they spend most of their time, and secondly, to manage it well and save in the cost. But is saving (in the sense of not spending) some kind of income? No.

Or, if it is, then the State is losing much more money somewhere else.

Let's take another example of imputed income. This is much more significant.

Let's assume that instead of walking, or driving, or taking a bus to work, people would take a helicopter taxi to work. Sure, it is costly. Half an hour helicopter ride costs around 350 €, and there are the transitions for the chopper from the base to the place where you take off, so going to work with helicopter costs about 700 € one way, 1400 € a day. There are 2457000 people in a job in the country, 260 working days. This means that the imputed net income gained by people in Finland not riding helicopter to work is about 894 000 000 000 € per year. As the average income tax rate is 23,2 %, it means that the State loses 207 000 000 000 € per year! About a hundred times the amount of the imaginary imputed net rent income. (In fact, the amount should be larger, because of course also those who don't go to work but go to school etc also get a similar income).

Just think how much good the State could do with this money!

And that's not all. Add to that the amount of imputed net income that people get when they cook food at home, instead of going to dine every day at Chez Dominique! (With a helicopter taxi.) Not to mention the imputed net value of sexual services that are exchanged by married couples (or unmarried, for that matter, not to forget registered relationships of same-sex couples, nor activities in public swimming halls).

Yeah, it's rubbish. Just like that imputed net rent income idea. In reality, both the income tax rates and other tax rates in this country are adjusted to be as tight as possible. There's considerable argument about on which side of the peak of the Laffer curve we are in, but surely it is folly to imagine that you could just hike up the income tax rate (based on calculated imaginary income) and collect 20 % more without severe impact on economic activity.

4.11.2010

Who do you really support in Afghanistan?

Some enthusiastic supporter of Julian Assange wrote elsewhere: "Do you think Afghans and Iraqis should sue the US government for launching an illegal war?"

Afghans definitely should not, because there's no war that would be more legal than the Western intervention in Afghanistan. It is a rare case in the category of wars, covered by UN resolutions and international law (like this one and many others since.)

Of course, the whole concept of "launching" a war in Afghanistan (in 2001) is a pretty moot point considering that the country has been in an constant state of (civil) war for the past 30 years. In the 80's, the Soviets occupied it and Americans supported the (largely Islamic) resistance. Now, US, UK and NATO/ISAF forces occupy it (with UN backing) and resistance is by an unholy alliance of militant Islamists and drug lords.

Calling the UN-backed intervention "illegal" is not a statement of juridical facts, it is a statement for your preference to support bronze-age barbarism that the Taleban represents, instead of the possibly well-meaning but bureaucratic and ineffective UN, or Western democracies.

It is equally folly to say that if Western armed forces withdraw from the country, it would somehow "end" the war. No, the war would not end. The combatants would just take some other targets (for instance, people whose names were exposed by Julian Assange). And the war might spread to neighbouring countries. But one thing is sure, the war would not end there.

The idea that a war in Afghanistan or Iraq would end when the US, UK and NATO/ISAF forces leave is in my opinion very, very wrong, and perhaps "colonialist" would be a good characterization. To believe this idea, you must assume that Afghans and Iraqis are not real people who would be leading their own lives; they are just targets, subjects, proxies in a cultural war against Americans; if left alone, they will be quite irrelevant and the focus moves on the the next cause where Western powers can be blamed. In this viewpoint, if the Americans have lost a war, that is a great victory, and what happens to the proxies - for instance, the people in Afghanistan - is not material at all. They're not people, they're just tools for proving what a nice SWPL you are when you "oppose the war".

It is another matter whether the intervention in Afghanistan will achieve its long-term goals; some short-term goals have been achieved (after all, there are now probably tens or hundreds of thousands of girls who have been allowed to go to school and learn to read, for instance) but the country is not stable and peaceful at all.

Iraq is then a completely different point regarding legality. There the invaders had no UN backing, and the WMD hype was made up when US and UK simply wanted attack and to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The American, British and other troops have committed atrocities in the course of war. However, when those who are fighting against the Americans and British commit atrocities, it is somehow "natural", it is an act of God, or in fact it is a fault of the Americans and needs to be added to the Iraq body count.

How come some people are not responsible for their own actions, and Americans are responsible for everything? Are they so much better and more important people that no one else needs to be accounted at all?

Finally, I'm slightly astonished to see well-educated Western people say Al-Qaida fighters are "defending" their country. First of all, much of Al-Qaida in Afghanistan is Arabs in a non-Arab country. They are defending an ideology, and that is an ideology that deserves to lose (much more so than the materialistic, reactionary but secular Western ideology).

30.10.2010

A Finnish Monument



In September 1863, Alexander II, by the grace of God the Emperor and Sovereign of Russia, Tsar of Poland, Grand Duke of Finland, Prince of Estonia, etc, etc, etc, etc, arrived in Helsinki to open the parliament session in his Grand Duchy. He also visited Aurora Karamzin, who was a former waiting-maid of the Empress and the widow of Tsar's close friend Paul Demidov. Paul, who deceased in 1840, had been not only a friend of the Tsar but also one of the richest men in Russia at the time, and now Aurora, re-married in 1846 to colonel Andrei Karamzin and re-widowed by the Crimean war in 1854, possessed a vast fortune which she governed with iron will and rigid but moderate religious furor, contributing significantly to various philanthropic causes like schools and hospitals.

Aurora had a nice mansion in Träskända, Espoo, some 20 km from Helsinki. Her people were enthusiastically waiting for the important guest.

But they had a problem. A visit by the Tsar is not an everyday occasion. Any host or hostess would want to impress the important guest. How?

Finland had no great monumental buildings, the palaces were dwarfed by what the emperor had back home in St. Petersburg. The country doesn't have the tallest mountains in the world, nor access to the great seas, and no magnificent rivers. This was nice, wooded country, perhaps one of the neatest parts of the vast Russian empire, but being just neat isn't very impressive. What could we show to the emperor? What could we build, something the emperor surely has not seen before?

And now follows a very Finnish idea. Let's build something that is really novel to the Tsar.
The greatest loo in the world!

And here it stands, to this day, on the grounds of Träskända manor. A huge, six-cylinder wooden outhouse, decorated with wood carvings, and ventilated through a tall tower in the center, in the shade of the great oaks that have grown here since Aurora and other manor owners had them planted almost two centuries ago. And it's called The Imperial Outhouse (Keisarillinen Käymälä).

Alexander also participated in a hunt that was arranged on the manor grounds, and then left off to take care of other parts of his empire, which his descendants then mismanaged and lost. The manor house burnt down in 1888 and a new one was erected, designed by messiers Lindgren-Gesellius-Saarinen. The house has since then been a nursing home for the elderly.

A part of the manor grounds is preserved as a nature reserve, but some of the woodlands were chopped off after Second World war and given as plots of land to refugees from the Porkkala area that Soviet Union took for a forcible 50 year lease (but ceded back as economically unsustainable and militarily outdated in 1956). The refugees built their houses here. Later this former woodland turned suburban, and now the streets in the area are given names that remind us of Alexander's hunt: Hare Road, Hunting-hound's Road, Hunt-master Alley.

Putting the genie back in the bottle

Helsinki Court of Appeal gave today a verdict in a court case related to freedom of expression. Jussi Halla-aho, a blogger who mainly writes about immigration (critically), was fined 330 euros for "breach of religious peace", as a year-old sentence of the Helsinki District Court was largely upheld by the court.

Enough of Halla-aho's case has been written (at least in the Finnish blogosphere) so I won't delve in it any further. What makes the Helsinki Court of Appeal a true court jester is the verdict which requires Halla-aho to now remove two paragraphs from his blog. Mistake:

Once it is published, it cannot be recalled

Once someone puts something in the Internet and a few other people are interested enough to care, there's no way to remove it. It just can't be done. Of course, Halla-aho could edit one particular instance of a Web page that he maintains, but that's just one page. Looking at Google as of today, I get about 2250 hits for exact replicas of Halla-aho's offending sentences. Why are these replicas there? Because of the court case, lots of sites have copied the text. Without the court case, few would have bothered. I mean, what Halla-aho publishes is not badly written but it is a little bit repetitive, and most people would not have bothered.

So, by now, thousands of Web pages are replicating what Halla-aho wrote. This is impressive, considering that it is in Finnish, a rather obscure language in the net world. Some of the sites are clearly islamophobic, some are generally interested in immigration, many focus on freedom of speech, some just like to observe and occasionally provoke a good fight.

What the court could realistically do is threaten to lock up anyone who is caught publishing those sentences, or uttering them in public, and try to enforce it in the Finnish jurisdiction. The court could perhaps issue an order to behead anyone who re-publishes these insults to Islam. This just might be reasonably expected from the Helsinki Court of Appeal. But take out sentences from a blog, to remove insulting phrases from Internet? Delusional. And decidedly counter-productive. Just a hint of censorship will ensure that lots of people will want to copy and re-publish the stuff.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, it doesn't go back in. If you ever put anything in the Web, it won't be possible to remove it; there will be countless copies around the world if the material is in any way interesting to anyone and is linked somewhere. And starting a process at a court of law, trying to censor the Internet, is a dead-sure way to accelerate replicating that page in the net. It's really an invitation to spread the word.

Mika Illman, the state prosecutor who was the real target of Halla-aho's provocation, would have been very wise to just observe the criticism against him, and if it was too much to bear, resign, because if he can't stand it, he's not fit for the job.

Halla-aho's case will surely continue in the Supreme Court and after that probably in the European Court of Human Rights, which is going to be the first level of courts of law that isn't already thoroughly offended by Halla-aho's provocation, and which will of course also provide an international platform where this storm in a teacup can reach new heights. What the Helsinki District Court and Helsinki Court of Appeal have now achieved is make hundreds of thousands of people aware of what was written about Islam's Prophet. This isn't exactly the way to ease up the relationship between religious groups. Jussi Halla-aho provokes people because he wants to, it's his mission. Mika Illman, his colleagues and the Helsinki courts do it because they don't know any better.

18.10.2010

The Haitian housing bubble


One might think that when very many of the houses in Port-au-Prince were destroyed by an earthquake on January 12, there wouldn't be a housing bubble where some nice apartments are empty, waiting for buyers or tenants.

But this is what has happened in Haiti. Over one million people are still living in tents or squatters, in improvised housing made of scrap iron and tarpaulin. Mostly, this is of course unavoidable, because the destruction is so vast. But there are also many houses left standing up, in nice condition, waiting for someone to live in them.

The NPR tells us that the prices on surviving houses defy belief. One senator put up his three-bedroom with panoramic views for $15,000 a month. (Its nine Rottweiler guard dogs are free.) Finding anything similar for less than $5,000 is a steal. Want to buy? A three-bedroom with guest apartment lists for $900,000.

I think Haiti could use some serious socialism/fascism/nationalism here. Have a government that confiscates houses, assigns them according to need, keeps up law and order. Keeps a record of people in each area, delivers food stamps, manages a rationing system for external aid. Administers a dose of the neatly calculated Official Table of Drops to armed robbers and rapists. Allows local market economy to recover. All the stuff that West European countries experienced after the Second World War, until Wirtschaftswunder.

Unfortunately, suitably un-corrupt socialism/fascism/nationalism seems to be in short supply in the West Indies. No, I really wouldn't completely trust the Cubans. But what's worst in this sort-of artificial housing shortage? In a way, it's the prospect that these housing speculators are most interested is NGOs - the organizations that are there to help the people of Haiti. "The owner isn't interested in renting to Haitians. He's always rented to NGOs." What good can the NGOs do, when their money goes to outrageously high rental costs, and keeps up structures of inefficient use of resources? In stable, advanced countries, having a few high-earners make lots of money does have the impact that the money trickles down in the economy, because the high earners buy local products and services, and hire staff. But in Haiti, I suspect that anyone who can squeeze substantial amounts of aid money out of the NGOs and quangos operating there will be depositing as much as they can in bank accounts in the U.S., or Virgin Islands, or Switzerland. And it's perfectly legitimate money.

The saddest thing is that no one, myself included, has any idea how to do it better. Sending money seems hopeless, it's just wasted. Sending people just means that the aid workers need protection and support, so that resource usage is extremely inefficient. Sending anything else is a waste.

Except perhaps a vast, efficient, un-corrupt occupation army, with sufficient firepower to quell any resistance without mercy. The downside is that no one has the economic muscle, gall and moral will to set up, arm and deploy such an occupation force. But nevertheless, I think I'm developing very colonialist attitudes regarding Haiti, at least until someone can demonstrate any success with any other means.

17.10.2010

Heatballs


Energy-saver light bulbs (CFL, compact fluorescent light) aren't very nice. Most of them produce an unpleasant colour of light - often about as inspiring as a frozen morgue on a November morning, with a zombie tapping your shoulder.

They are also slow to start, taking a minute or two before they produce their full, nominal luminosity - which usually is still less than you expected from the sales package. And, CFLs contain mercury, which is poisonous. In most other products, like thermometers, there has been a frenzy to to eliminate mercury, but not with lamps, where mercury is part of the compound that forms the luminous vapor in the tube.

Regular light bulbs are banned because they are "inefficient", i.e. consume electricity and produce heat, which in Southern Europe is then removed by air conditioning, which consumes even more electricity. But this inefficiency doesn't really matter too much in Finland, because it is almost always heating season here - except for the middle of the summer, say June to August, which is the season when you don't really need light bulbs. So, whenever we want to use light bulbs, the energy is wasted to a lesser degree than elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the EU has banned regular light bulbs, even though for many of us, they would continue to be the best alternative in some applications.

But fortunately the free market still has some innovativeness: in Germany, a new product called "heatballs" has arrived on the market.

Of course, they are exactly the same as the old light bulbs, but as they are marketed as heat bulbs, they are not banned. After all, they work just like electric heaters - which are still allowed, of course, because the pact of light bulb manufacturers could lobby on legislation allowing them to sell CFLs, but not replace the whole of heating infrastructure in Europe. And, in addition, the heat bulbs produce some light, with a pleasantly coloured spectrum.

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Note: I don't think CFLs are totally bad. For instance, at my home, all the outdoors lights are CFLs, except one (at the side entrance where it needs to light up instantly when the IR sensor turns it on). However, I find it strange that the recycling has not been arranged at the cost of CFL manufacturers and importers, as you would expect. Now most of the hazardous material ends up in landfills.

14.10.2010

The Freedom Trap


About 42000 reputable newspapers and TV channels, and about 42 000 000 bloggers, are commenting on the fantastic story of the Chilean miners who are currently being rescued from the hole where they've been trapped for over two months.

It's a really nice story. World news is mostly miserable, and this particular story started out just the same - a mine collapsed, dozens killed - but then it turned out to be a story of miraculous survival, and eventually a reality TV; something that brings to mind the Apollo 13 story and Big Brother and Titanic and the Kwai River Bridge. And it is even closer to us, because the people whose fate has been hanging from a thread for the past 68 days are not fabulous astronauts or elite military, but a group of ordinary working men, who have become a part of an extraordinary course of events due to an act of God.

Some people are complaining that politicians, as well as the media and other commercial parties, are exploiting the miners. Well, sure they are, but for once, let them go ahead, at least for some time. It's a wonderful exploit. I'm sure pretty much everyone on Earth who has heard of this occurrence is glad that it all turns out so well, so it's much nicer that everyone exploits this than the latest car bomb in Bahdad or a mutilated schoolgirl in Pakistan or a mudflood in Mexico. It's been clear for some weeks already that at least most of the miners in Copiapó will be rescued successfully, but now it looks like they'll all be up under the sun, in good health, in just a few hours.

It's a great publicity event for Chile. There's plenty of goodwill to be collected by the incumbent Chilean president Sebastian Piñera and fellow politicians. Also, I have little doubt that the gold and copper mine, which wasn't hugely rich and which did not enable the San Esteban mining company to thrive too much, will change. The mining company have been criticized a lot, but I suppose that in the general carneval spirit, the Chileans won't be too vindicative even if there were some lapses in mining security. After all, there still was a working shelter and enough training, and eventually also ambitious rescue efforts, which enabled these miners to survive - although the more un-romantic amongst us will surely tell that instead of spending tens of millions of dollars in rescuing the miners, the same amount of money would have saved ten or hundred times as many lives if it had been spent on aid to poor children in the capitalistic Chile which has such an evil neo-liberalist political leadership. Hey, their economic recover was enabled by one Pinochet, so it cannot possibly be good.

But back to the mine. I think it is quite likely that in a year or two, the Copiapó site will be a theme park that welcomes wealthy norteamericano tourists to spend an hour, or a day or two, down in a hotel in the mine, and then experience the escape lift, for a hefty fee. That may be a better use for the place than extracting copper and gold ore.

There's just one but. The miners are now famous. As I mentioned before, they will never have to go down a mine shaft again, unless they want to, because they can make a living selling autobiographies, movie rights, etc etc.

This is their biggest trap. They are now free from the mine, but they are not free from the experience of utter despair for many many dark days before contact to outside world, not are they free from the curious crowd, us. They've been sturck well out of mental balance, and now they'll be under intense media scrutiny - particularly the poor chap who had both a wife and a mistress - and unless they are strong-minded individuals, or have very honest, good and competent personal managers, some of them will be like a mix of Maradona and Matti Nykänen. That is dangerous for their well-being.

Perhaps the Chilean government should appoint someone to look after them a bit, because their newly gained freedom is the trap that ensnares them.

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(I thought I had made up a nice subject line for the post, but then I realized that I had only borrowed it from a solid thriller from 40 years back, by one of my favourites, Desmond Bagley.)

10.10.2010

Nobel Peace Prize and Chinese agents


Some Chinese people have been rather offended by the Nobel peace price awarded to dissident to Liu Xiaobo. They have also expressed their feelings in comment sections to Western blogs. The usual reaction by other people has been that the comments are either trolls (well, some surely are) or are entered by people who can only be paid agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC). Many of the comments are quite full of prejudices.

Reading the Marginal Revolution blog, I ended up commenting this in such a long text that I vary it here as well.

Having lived for some time in China, and having been in contact with quite many Chinese since that, I think these accusations are mistaken. There are Chinese who defend their government and oppose Liu, or the granting of Nobel to Liu. They are not necessary trolls, or proxies of the CPC. Opinions like theirs are not at all uncommon among Chinese. And that is why this discussion works against the goals of the Nobel Peace Price. It is a mistake not to understand that very many Chinese genuinely support the current regime. They do believe it is doing a good job. They are even prepared to defend it in net discussions, out of their own, genuine conviction.

As an overall note: it seems a lot of right-wing people (particularly Americans) are disturbed by the concept of "communism" in the name of the dynasty that governs China (CPC). Here one should note that the loyalty to this dynasty is not really agreeing to communist ideals. This is not about communism; this is about being Chinese. If you're afraid of China, or if you don't like the way it works, you should not be fooled by the communist parlance. It's just liturgy. Talk about the Chinese. The Chinese describe their system as "socialist market economy"; I would characterize it as "capitalistic communism". See the difference? Capitalism is the prevailing economic system; communism is the prevailing administrative system. But in the end, real-world communism and traditional Chinese administration are not that different. The Chinese just realized that the economic theory of communism doesn't work, particularly in the modern world. The administrative part - dictatorship - works a lot better.

And this is why many left-wing Westerners are so angry with the Chinese. The CPC has betrayed the ideals of the Left, because once in power, after many hazardous experiments, they found out that the market economy works better than centrally planned economy. Before realizing this, tremendeous mistakes were made. Tens or hundreds of millions of people were killed by various experiments, like the Great Leap Forward. The CPC is not very willing to admit this in public, but it is willing to learn and not repeat the same mistakes. And this is perhaps the main reason why Western left wing hates the new-new China.

I don't really know enough about Liu Xiaobo's work in order to say whether the Nobel Peace Price was justified. In the past, the committee has sometimes made rather doubtful selections, like awarding Barack Obama last year. There it seems that the committee just wanted to snub the supporters of George W. Bush in the U.S., with little real grounds - as Obama's merits, or lack of, in the year that followed have shown - and I'd say last year's prize hardly worked in any way to promote world peace. In the election campaign, Obama spoke differently from G. W. Bush but in the office, he has had little choice to implement any different politics. The emptiness of speech now shows up in his falling poll support, although I don't think there's anything so much wrong in his policies as such.

To get back to Liu Xiaobo: I repeat, a vast number of Chinese individuals - who are not stupid and who are not entirely unaware of what goes on in the world, either - are genuinely offended by the Nobel to Mr. Liu.

The Nobel is not without merit. It brought attention to Charter 08 and leads me to think that Liu probably has important ideas that a larger number of Chinese should hear of, and therefore, perhaps the prize is, in the end, indeed for the good. But it might only work its way through confrontation and escalation of mutual suspicions.

So, bottom line: do not be fooled to believe that the Chinese who bash Liu are trolls, or agents of the CPC. Assume they are real persons with real opinions. That gets you going in the discussion.

8.10.2010

Racism and Finnish nurses

This is an old thing, never saw this is in Finnish newspapers. Which is very very weird, considering the joke about an American, a Frenchman, a Finn and the elephant. *) I only met it now, through The Telegraph's story about Labour leadership race in Britain.

A prominent British labour politician, Diane Abbot, said "blonde, blue-eyed Finnish girls" in her local hospital in West London were unsuitable as nurses because they "may never have met a black person before." This was in 1996, the year when Lola Odusoga was Miss Finland.

It's astonishing that a politician - who has made a career out of claiming to oppose racism - can make such insensitive remarks. But yes, there is a double standard, at least within Ms Abbott, although in this case even she had to apologize. What really was the thing about the Finnish nurses that was bothering her? In a way, it is understandable that people would want to be treated by people who look familiar. But we're told that this would be racism. And in the end, what difference does a person's skin colour make? As long as she or he is a good nurse and speaks the language and can understand what her or his patients say and even their earlier lives?

I don't recall any Finnish commentary about Diane Abbott at the time, though that could of course be due to the fact that with a newborn baby, two other small children, and fresh mortgage, I was in a constant haze due to lack of sleep and overwork.

Anyway, Ms Abbot is now out of the British shadow cabinet, and those who would press the "like" button upon Labour Party's destruction have suffered a setback.


*) The joke: An American, a French and a Finn see an elephant. The American speculates: "How could I make most money out of it?". The Frenchman thinks: "How could I cook it to make unique food?". The Finn wonders: "What is it thinking about Finns?" We're so concerned about how others perceive our country and people that it is inconceivable that a remark about Finns in a major British newspaper would go unnoticed. Well, apparently there indeed was some commentary.

7.10.2010

Choice of employment and beggars

Finland is now arguing internally whether begging should be restricted. The same problem with beggars and squatters has come up elsewhere, e.g. in France: Roma people, mostly from Bulgaria, Romania and other East/Central European countries, have become a rather visible and sometimes obstructive and distressing phenomenon in cities. The begging is an organized industry, utilizing child labour as well as people with mutilated limbs and other disabilities. There is also a related phenomenon of pickpocketing, shoplifting, burglaries and squatting, with camps being built (with the kind support of some progressive youthful organizations, funded by the taxpayer).

"Racism. Useless law. You cannot prohibit poverty." These are slogans by those who oppose any restrictions to begging. Also, people are saying that it would be against Finnish constitution and European human rights law to restrict begging, particularly because there is the freedom of movement (of labour) in Europe and there is freedom of occupation in Finland.

Now, it is obvious that the Roma beggars (at least the foot soldier level) are poor, abused and not to be envied. But is allowing them to beg really helping them at all? I don't think so. Make up something else.

Prohibiting poverty?

Saying that restrictions would attempt to prohibit poverty is a moot point. Begging is certainly not the only option available, and giving money to beggars is not an efficient way to help anyone. Rather to the contrary. Whatever the country where I am, and whatever the nationality of the beggar, I don't give money, though I may give food or used clothes.

There are lots of poor people even in Europe, but only a few of them beg, and on the other hand, many of those participating in the begging racket are not poor. Encouraging begging is a bad way to help the poor. It's not just ineffective, but outright bad, because it sets wrong incentives. The Roma will not get out of poverty by continuing to beg; getting education is a better way, and working in the begging industry is making it more difficult to get an education.

Freedom of movement

The freedom of movement in EU is another moot point: the principle applies to labour who is working or looking for a job, not to begging, and it is limited to a 3-month period. It is perfectly legal to deport people who are abusing this.

Of course, there are no easy solutions to the beggar issue. Beggars won't go away if we just pass a law. And I don't think anyone believes so - although a straw man argument is often built around this. However, laws can be used for controlling unwanted, abusive behaviour, including things like human trafficking.

Coice of occupation

What amazes me is the argument that unlimited begging must be allowed because freedom of occupation is a human right, i.e. people have choice of employment - the principle that everyone is free to choose what he or she does for living.

Sure, let's facilitate freedom of occupation to beggars. Just like any other people offering services to the public, they will need a license. They will need to file in paperwork to guarantee health and safety for their clients and the employees in this industry - after all, the begging racket is an industry with a strong if not publicly very open hierarchy, reporting and profit structure, so the employment laws are applicable. The begging enterprises will be subject to tax law, they need to pay tax advances, file in tax reports.

What? It's too difficult for them? Yeah, right. It is. And this is a problem not only to the beggars, but everyone else as well, including far more useful occupations. There is quite some bureaucracy and cost in working as a self-employed person or setting up a company, but we just have to live with it; it's the price of the welfare state. Allowing some people to slip off legislation (because of their race, skin colour, or similar properties) would be racism.

I think everyone should be treated the same, independent of whether they belong to some ethnic group - and even if it is a hip and cool ethnic group whose cultural difference from the majority of local people is as big as possible. Somehow I don't think that the red-green progressives (and Sauli Niinistö) really want to help anyone. It's just cool to have beggars on our streets - so we have some easy puppets who can be used to show how good people we are when we want to use other people's money to help and support them.

Enforcement

Sure, a law against begging doesn't stop the nuissance completely. After all, even the law against killing doesn't stop all homicide, and making a crime of petty theft only worsens our crime statistics as the police has no time to investigate practically any of it. Still, the laws about murder and even bicycle theft have a point and they do some good.

Of course, it could be that the begging law is no good because it will be completely impossible to enforce, as the police are far too few and the cities are too broke to hire any "community officers" or the like. However, at least the police representative in the committee working on the issue seemed to favour having some legal tools that the police could use against obstructive begging. But if difficulty of enforcement is such an important criteria, we should urgently abolish zebra crossings and traffic lights, because currently few car drivers properly respect zebra crossings, and even fewer pedestrians obey traffic lights in crossings.

We're not quite that desperate yet.

3.10.2010

For a successful fight, you need to pick a good enemy

The Finnish Greens are raising up a fight against Perussuomalaiset, the old populist-immigration-sceptic-national-leftist splinter party that has recently gone up in poll ratings. (HS in Finnish.)

This is a very traditional way of waking up the spirit in own ranks: find an enemy (make it up if it doesn't exist), point at it, tell how bad they are, set up a fight. Preferably, a fight you can win (so define the rules carefully). But, in a way, it's rather sad.

The Greens are supposed to be the main liberal party in this country, with best educated and relatively young membership, new ideas, strong support in the lower ranks of the immensely strong public-sector offices such as ministries, etc - and what are they doing? They don't have much more new to contribute than Perussuomalaiset. All they can do is find a straw man and start beating it. Well, the party does have a significant Stalinist-general-leftist tradition (from the likes of Satu Hassi) in addition to those who came from the Liberals (like Osmo Soininvaara), and apparently it shows here.

Perussuomalaiset is, of course, a populist party. It lacks constructive ideas. It mainly looks behind, wanting to reverse the progress towards European unification. Tax the rich, tax the corporate world, and raise the benefits - an easy cry from the opposition, and an impossible position if you go to talks to form a cabinet coalition .

Once the party gets a large representation in the parliament, it will be held responsible for its political programme - or to be precise, the inexistance of a realistic political programme. Its lack of positive ideas, lack of internal discipline, lack of trained and experienced politicians and lack of politically-appointed supportive staff in ministries will mean that it will disappoint its voters. "Get out of EU and keep out of NATO and close the borders and tax the rich and give money to everyone else" will not carry it very far. It will fall into internal pickering and schisms, splinter up and generally not be of any good. The only real impact it has is that it forces everyone to open up the immigration debate, which has been in some ways a taboo until this year. This impact is already very visible. But otherwise the Perussuomalaiset has been able to contribute very little.

But is it now really so that the Greens are not any better? Do they think that they are in competition of the same voters? That is absurd. Those who vote Perussuomalaiset are most likely proletarian people who are disappointed in SDP and sometimes perhaps Keskusta (the Center Party). The Greens are competing with Kokoomus (Conservatives), and the most obvious property of any Green is that they sneer at proles. "Red-neck" is their ultimate insult, and the internal code of conduct in the Greens is that above all, it is important to show disdain of lower-class people. I can imagine a manual worker who is up to his elbows in grease or filth will vote for Kokoomus - even before he sets up his own company to organize and sell his labour - but Greens? Not really.

It looks like the Greens cannot beat the Conservatives, who are not really so conservative, and who are perhaps the most likely partner in any future coalition, so it might be a bit dangerous to insult them in large scale. So what do they do? They select an enemy who they can safely shout at, from a safe distance, and hurl insults. And not get involved in debate about actual issues - such as immigration, or taxation, or future development of public services, or how to arrange things for municipalities whose economic strength just doesn't carry the weight of the ever expanding obligations imposed by the state.

1.10.2010

Why is health care so expensive in the USA?

The Incidental Economist has a great article on this.

Too bad that there are no simple answers. Many would have us think so, of course. But the reality is complex.

27.9.2010

Woman in Black

The United Nations has nominated a person to act as the first contact for extraterrestrial aliens, with the title UNOOSA (United Nations Officer for Outer Space Affairs). Malaysian astrophysicist Mazlan Othman got the job.

I wonder if her tasks include assisting any aliens in applying for family unification?

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Update: Apparently, this news piece was bogus. The UNBBTTBTA (United Nations Brooklyn Battery Tunnel Triborough Bridge Tunnel Authority) denies any existence.

23.9.2010

22.9.2010

Panic and hysteria in Sweden

The Swedish election drama is becoming a frightful circus. Judging by the headlines, the whole country is getting psychotic.

Sweden Democrats, a tiny fringe party, gets enough votes to enter the parliament, and suddenly tabloids make headlines about "dark forces". The parliament changes its rules for setting up working groups just in order to keep this little party totally isolated. Bagfuls of uncounted votes appear here and there before the final recount, in the hope that the build-up of Riksdagen could be adjusted and it just might be possible to set up a cabinet which does not need any support from Sweden Democrats. Put it in scale with the size of the country, and the whole show is more remarkable than the Bush-Gore recounts in the U.S. in 2000.

The election drama built up over a period of time. Publishing campaign adverts was restricted. The police told the Sweden Democrats not to make campaign gatherings because they could be attacked. Is that kind of situation acceptable in a democracy? On the other hand, it turns out that the SD member who claims to have been attacked and wounded with swastika marks may actually have inflicted the wounds himself - but who knows now? Paranoia is the word of the day.

Yes, some of the people in SD are probably racists. However, I think that a much more typical description of SD activists is that they are people who are fed up with the political class of Sweden. They are also politically inexperienced, enthusiastic but naive, and probably unable to co-operate even with each other, let alone anybody else.

The same is true with most populist movements. SD is characterized as an "extreme right" party, although in my opinion, their agenda is rather more typical of the political left, except for the subject of immigration. The ideology is: tax the rich, defend the poor, work against big international corporations, save the welfare system and increase redistributive actions of the state. Typical leftist policies. Again, the same is true with similar movements in other countries, like Perussuomalaiset in Finland. The movement is proletarian in heart, and perhaps that is what so scares the Swedish political elite.

This elite seems to be utterly at loss as to how to deal with the situation. Here the Swedes could learn a lesson from Finland, and also their own history.

In 1960's and 1970's Finland, the radical left - Stalinists - were popular among the young. The movement was embraced by then-president Urho Kekkonen, and effectively hugged to Brezhnev-like half-coma, if not full death.

In 1980's Finland, the populist SMP (Finnish Rural Party) attracted the votes of the neglected concrete suburbs, with a largely populist agenda. How were they then contained? They were made accountable for their campaign. Urpo Leppänen promised that he'll eliminate unemployment if his party gets enough votes to make him the employment minister. Well, he got his way. He became the minister. And he found out, the hard way, that it is easy to make promises but difficult to deliver. The party had got its votes, but it had no sustainable policy, it had no sustainable organization, and once the emptiness of this balloon was made visible to everyone, it imploded. Urpo Leppänen's policies turned out to be, although popular, too expensive and inefficient. SMP lost the next election and became a fringe party again.

Why don't they do the same to SD in Sweden?

As said, some of the Sweden Democracts are no doubt racists. More often they may be people who just want to protest the political culture in Sweden, and are unrealistic and un-co-operative. But "dark forces"? Come on, they don't look like Lord Voldemort to me. They lack the intelligence, the cunning, and the evil.

Some of the founders of SD have a background in Swedish Nazi groups. That doesn't impress me. The Left alliance in Sweden includes Vänsterpartiet, whose background is in the Communists, a similarly violent and destructive political ideology. Nobody is making a fuss about that. Hey, look at Björn Wahlroos, who was on the frontlines of Stalinist revolution in Finland in early 1970's, and see where he's now. People do change.

To conclude the lesson, here's what the Swedes should do. Don't isolate SD. That will just inflate their significance and help them grow, and continue to increase the tension. If the unhappiness of people - voters - has no way of coming out, the result will be increased violence - which so far has mostly included just unpunished rioting against the SD and the general civil unrest in places like Rosengård.

I suggest the democratic way. Engage the SD. Make them responsible for what they say and what they promise. If it turns out that their ideas were wrong, that their promises were unfounded, the best way to expose this is to debate the politics.

And remember, as far as I understand, that's what was done in Sweden with the Communists, who - despite a history of supporting murderous regimes - are now a happy member of the left alliance.

17.9.2010

The Greens for Sweden Democrats

Sweden will have parliamentary elections on Sunday. As the election day closes in, the lead of the center-right coalition is becoming stronger in opinion polls, and the red-green opposition is losing. One interesting thing is of course also what will come of the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna), who might exceed the 4 % threshold and enter the parliament.

The extreme left is trying to harass the campaign of the Sweden Democrats. TV advertisements have been banned, and speeches of party leader Jimmie Åkesson have been drowned by vuvuzela concerts - which really looks like bullying tactics to silence political dissent, so it is collecting sympathy for SD. Some of the harassment is going really, really far: one SD candidate was beaten up by masked men who cut a swastika to his forehead. Even Lars Ohly of the Left had to condemn this. Now, this kind of things can only embarrass the left, and give sympathy to the SD, possibly helping them to parliament.

Because some of the SD are obvious racists, and many more are just otherwise obnoxious, it's unlikely that the coalition would like to work with them in governing the country. But what if SD reaches a position where it can deny a majority from either of the blocks?

This actually looks like a dream setup for the green party (Miljöpartiet). The red-green block won't work with any of the parties of the current center-right coalition, but the coalition just might work with the greens, at least preferably to the SD. So: if SD wins, that opens a strong position for the greens. They will be holding the balance of power.

So, secretly the Miljöpartiet must be wishing very hard that Sverigedemokraterna wins votes from the moderate right.

Assassinating the Pope

Five suspected terrorists have been arrested over a plot to assassinate the Pope. Weirdos. Why would they attack the Pope?

The good thing is that the Islamic fanatics appear to become more and more disconnected from reality, and therefore easier to catch. The Pope is not enemy to Islam, nor active in any way in the perceived oppression of Islam in Palestine or elsewhere. Rather to the contrary. But he's a very carefully observed and protected target.

Overall, the misconception with Islamic terrorists seems to be that they think there's a conflict between Islam and Christianity. What they miss is that Western countries are secular societies, even if historically strongly influenced by Christian heritage. For Muslims, Christians are people of the book (like all monotheists), but pagans, polytheists and particularly atheists are not really even human.

But the core of European politics today is atheist or at least agnostic: God does not play a major part there. Neither does the Pope.

Therefore, a plot to kill the Pope just shows how utterly lost the Islamists are. They don't know who they attack and why, and that kind of attackers will be easier to stop.

One last thing to note: the Five may of course not really be serious terrorists; it could be just a misunderstanding. Time will tell.

29.8.2010

Lipstick espionage?

Iran has imprisoned people who work for Oriflame, the company that sells skin care and cosmetics products through an independent sales force.

Oriflame says ""We are a cosmetics company, we are selling direct. We are of course not involved in any political activities in the country". However, perhaps they should realize that in Iran, employing people directly as an independent sales force - consisting of women - is in itself a political, possibly even hostile act.

This reminds me of a sight that I met in China: a Tupperware store. There are no Tupperware stores elsewhere, because in most parts of the world, Tupperware is marketed through direct sales, by agents who arrange "Tupperware parties", often a gathering of women in someone's home. In China, this would create a politically unacceptable independent movement, so it is not allowed, and marketing works through stores (which are certainly luxury shops, considering the humongous price gap between Tupperware and generic plastic dishes and bowls in China). Oriflame works in the same way, and has apparently run into the same problem with Iran.

28.8.2010

Watch out, Apple!

Across the pond, a U.S. District Judge Alan Kay has allowed a lawsuit to proceed: Craig Smallwood of Hawaii seeks $3M in damages because the game Lineage II is so addictive. This sounds like a completely frivolous lawsuit to me, but it's not the first nor the last crazy court case we hear of from the U.S.

But the aftermath? Judging by the number of Mac and iPhone users around me who appear completely addicted, they ought to be joining Cult Awaress Network and sue Apple.

26.8.2010

I'm glad I'm not in a mine in Chile

33 miners trapped in a Chilean copper mine are suddenly, against their wishes, part of an experiment that in my opinion is more realistic than the voluntary enclosure of six men in Mission Mars, a simulated flight to Mars and back.

The difference is that if there's a true emergency, the men in a simulated Mars flight can be evacuated instantly. But with the guys in San José mine in Copiapó, there's no such luxury. If something goes wrong, there's no way out. I really wish they do get out.

The Mission Mars is like Big Brother on steroids, but without sex. Copiapó is real reality, not just a scripted show.

There's one thing I need to say about safety in mines in Chile: there are already accusations of breaking safety standards in this mine (and, hence, plans for lawsuit) but I'm pleasantly surprised by the fact that they have such high standards that shelters have been built in the mines. In most other countries (at least outside Europe and North America), a mine accident like this would have produced just 33 fatalities. Here, the miners have a room where they can wait in relative safety and comfort. We don't exactly know, but behind the collapsed tunnel and the shelter, they might even have a kilometer or two of tunnel where to move about, walk and exercise. OK, if they really have to wait until Christmas, that is a very long time. I wish the PR people of the mine company have just taken a careful stance so that if the rescue comes quicker, everyone will be pleased, and if it really takes four months, people will not be too disappointed. I, for one, will be pretty glad if the men come up alive and physically well at all.

Although the situation of the men is difficult, and such that for most of us it would be psychologically unbearable, there is one good thing for them. I don't think they will ever need to go down a mine shaft again. They'll make their living by selling autobiographies and getting royalties from movie scripts.

Consumer protection rip-off

The protection of consumers is a popular stalking-horse to protect someone's own business. The latest example is by Vuokraturva Oy, who is a rental apartment agent, and has been very visible in the media recently, possibly because they have realized how gullible journalists can be utilized for lobbying public policies (like when claiming that renting an apartment is cheaper than buying one. Yes, it is, if you don't count in that some part of the monthly mortgage payments is actually saving your own capital, while in rent there's none - cash flow isn't the bottom line).

Timo Metsola, the chairman of board, says that it should be forbidden for banks to grant mortgages to house buyers based on short-term rates, i.e. mortgages where the reference rate is 3 or 12 month Euribor. Instead, reference rates of at least 10 years should be mandatory, because this would cut down speculation and bring stability to the market.

Yeah, stability. For whom? Now, why is a rental apartment agent and owner so keen to protect the interests of consumers who are buying homes? Well, of course, there's money to be made: if those who buy their own home are forced to commit to 10-year rates - which are typically higher than short-term rates - then owning rental apartments, and the money-making chances of rental apartment agency business, are more lucrative. You see, the limitation would apply to people who buy their own homes, but it would of course not apply to investors who buy apartments for leasing out.

12 month Euribor, which is the most typical reference rate for Finnish mortgages, is currently around 1,4 %. It's been a bit lower and it's been a considerably higher, but it's almost all the time lower than the 10 year rate, which has since mid-90's been between 4% and 6 %. During this time, the 12 month Euribor has only twice peaked over 5 % but most of the time stayed below 4 %.

Now, if people who buy their own homes are not allowed to mortgage on short rates, what does it mean? It means that the investors can take the rate risk. Also, it means that the cost of investment for professional investors is lower than for people who buy their own homes. The investors can make more money. Home buyers pay more. How convenient.

So there's a good reason why the consumers should be protected: kill the competition that comes from individual home owners. Lesson to be learned: a lot of things are said to be to protect us poor consumers - and in reality, the meaning is to rip us off.