All posts by David99

World War I’s latest victims died in March 2014 in Flanders

World War I is still claiming lives in Flanders, Belgium. The towns Ypres and Passendale were the scenes of major WWI battles, ground zero for the Western Front. Here is my rough translation from the French of a story in the Brussels “Metro” paper of 20 March 2014:

TWO DEAD IN EXPLOSION OF BURIED SHELL

Ypres – Two workers died yesterday [19 March 2014] after the explosion of a shell in the course of working on an excavation at Ypres, according to Mayor Jan Durenz and the press service of the Department of Defense. Another worker is in critical condition.

The accident happened at a construction worksite in an industrial zone. At about 1 pm, the workers struck a shell which exploded.

The Service for the Removal and Destruction of Explosive Engines (SEDEE) has gone to the scene.

At the beginning of the month, a large number of munitions were discovered at the border of Passendale and Moorslede. The SEDEE is now working in that zone.

(The piece goes on to say that there are still thousands of explosive shells in that region of Flanders. It does not say, but we have been reading, that 500 shells were discovered within the last few weeks. Half of them have poison gas that is still quite dangerous. They were abandoned by the Germans at the end of the war in 1918).

These deaths are not an isolated occurrence but something which happens periodically in Belgium.

Fred Astaire, George Burns & Gracie Allen sing, dance and joke through “A Damsel in Distress”

The 1937 RKO movie “A Damsel in Distress” cheerfully shreds the plot of the book. But it was the book’s author, P.G. Wodehouse (best known for his Bernie Wooster/Jeeves series), who helped transform the story into a star vehicle for Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen. And what a vehicle it is, with dancing, singing and jokes.

Astaire, Burns & Allen in a 1937 RKO publicity photo for the movie
Astaire, Burns & Allen in a 1937 RKO publicity photo for the movie. Click twice to blow up

Fred Astaire plays a song-and-dance man named Jerry Halliday, while Burns and Allen play George Burns and Gracie Allen (We would call that post-modern; they call it vaudeville).

The book is a romantic comedy about a composer of musicals, while the movie goes one step further and is itself a musical. The music, by George and Ira Gershwin, included three songs which became standards — Things Are Looking Up, A Foggy Day, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. With a plot so light it can hardly be called a spoiler alert to say Astaire, playing a star, gets the girl. George Burns plays Astaire’s press agent and Gracie Allen is George’s secretary. Gracie plays a confused dingbat who somehow ends each scene getting what she wants.

Look for the dance sequence at a carnival, shot through funhouse mirrors. (A very different take on funhouse mirrors from the climactic scene in Orson Welles’ “Lady from Shanghai” made in 1948).

This Google movie won’t be seen in the U.S.

There is a revelatory moment in the movie “Google and the World Brain” that is excruciating and fascinating. In the mountains above Barcelona, Spain, Father Damià Roure, library director of the ancient Monastery of Montserrat, shows us one of 23,400 books in his library digitised by Google.

Father Damia Roure
Father Damià Roure

“This was a way of spreading our culture. It gives us great satisfaction that they are available to everybody,” he says as he slowly turns the pages of a 16th century prayer book. The interviewer’s rejoinder is sharp:

‘”Google didn’t pay you to scan your books. Was that fair? What if someone turns this all into a business and makes a profit?”

Father Roure’s lips move; no sound emerges. He bites his lower lip. His chin dimples. His head shakes quickly back and forth and his shoulders take a dip. Still no sound.

“Perhaps the question is too difficult?” says the interviewer.

And so it is. If Father Roure failed to consider that this might be exploitation, instead of charity, then we are all a bit like Father Roure. Are G-mail, YouTube, Picasa, and Android all something for nothing? Is there such a thing as a free lunch after all?

Digital technology has turned traditional notions of value on their head as surely as printing multiplied the power of the written word, or steam trains moved passengers faster than horse-drawn carriages. Ben Lewis, director of the film, says the out-of-print books that are a focus of his film had virtually no value before. But in the new digital economy they are highly valuable, just like Montserrat’s prayer books.

Lewis explores how Google is trying to exploit this value before everyone else wakes up. I once spent time as a Reuters journalist working on the story of the Google books settlement, yet Lewis’s film had new things to teach me.

At the same time that a new Hollywood comedy about Google is being released with great hullabaloo, Lewis cannot get his film distributed in the United States, even though it was a BBC production and exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival.

It would make us question Google’s values, and the value of data we give up willingly every day.

www.googleandtheworldbrain.com
(Disclosure: One of my clients actively opposes Google business practices which have been identified by the European Commission as anti-competitive; I work on this case)

Would the Federalists like their fans?

From The New York Times News of the Week in Review:

February 12, 1995
THE NATION: History Lessons; Would Federalists Like Their Fans?
By DAVID LAWSKY

WASHINGTON— WHEN it comes to peddling a political proposition in this town, nothing works better than dressing it up in the hallowed trappings of the Founding Fathers. Witness Senator Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican, trying to sell fellow senators on a constitutional mandate to erase the deficit.

“Let the new Federalist Papers of 1995 be crafted by this Congress to speak to the states of our nation and to tell them the virtues of a balanced budget amendment.” Thus did Mr. Craig invoke “The Federalist,” a collection of political tracts written some 207 years ago by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to persuade the states to ratify the Constitution.

For conservatives, “The Federalist” — really, a series of 85 op-ed pieces about the Constitution first published largely in New York newspapers — are the manifesto of constrained government. They so revere the book that one of their premier debating groups, The Federalist Society, is named after it. House Speaker Newt Gingrich recommended that each freshmen Republican in the House read it.

But what did Jay, Hamilton and Madison really think about the ideas behind the balanced budget amendment?

Not much, apparently.

The Founding Fathers were by no means free spenders; they wanted a government that could pay its debts. But in their political essays, they expressed grave reservations about the kinds of provisions that the creators of the prospective balanced budget amendment now have in mind.

At the heart of the balanced-budget proposal is a new rule that would make it tough to pass legislation permitting the country to sink further into the red. The amendment would require a supermajority, a three-fifths vote of all the members of each chamber — not merely those who are in their seats — to run an annual deficit or to borrow more money. As it stands now, Congress can bust its budget or extend its credit line any time a majority of the legislators who happen to be sitting in the House and Senate chambers votes to do so.

That seems to be the way the founders liked it. The Constitution says that a simple majority of the members in each house of Congress makes up a quorum that can do the nation’s business, whether the business is declaring war, proposing constitutional amendments to the states, ratifying treaties or impeaching a President.

Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 22 that quorums of more than a majority are “poison” for a deliberative assembly. He was particularly worried that if a supermajority were required for a vote, a minority would have the power to stop business just by not showing up: “To give the minority a negative upon the majority (which is always the case when more than a majority is requisite to a decision) is in its tendency to subject the sense of the greater number to that of the lesser number,” Hamilton wrote. “Its situation must always savour of weakness — sometimes border on anarchy.”

Madison underscored the point in Federalist No. 58, warning that when a body required more than a majority to make decisions, “the power would be transferred to the minority.”

Now, what about the part of the proposed balanced-budget amendment that deals with taxation? The amendment specifies that a majority of all elected members — instead of a majority of those present — would have to approve new taxes. The idea, according to those who back the amendment, is to give Congress an incentive to balance the budget by cutting spending, rather than by raising more from voters.

Hamilton would not have cared much for that idea either. In Federalist No. 30, he wrote that “a general power of taxation in one shape or another” is necessary for (among other things) “the payment of the national debts contracted, or that may be contracted.” To water down the power to tax is to dilute what Hamilton, in Federalist No. 33, called “the most important of the authorities” of the Federal Government.

Madison Isn’t Laughing

If “The Federalist” can be used as a yardstick, the framers of the Constitution would also have been troubled by the fact that the proposed budget amendment has no way of enforcing its mandate, without impinging on Congress’s power of the purse. As written, the proposal calls for Congress to guess at the start of each fiscal year whether spending will be offset by taxes and other income. But if the projections turn out to be wrong (as they always do) and Government spending slips into the red, the amendment offers no course of action.

Hamilton and Madison would not have been amused. In Federalist No. 15, Hamilton wrote: “If there be no penalty annexed to disobedience, the resolutions or commands which pretend to be laws will, in fact, amount to nothing more than advice or recommendation.” So if Congress can’t do the job, who will? The courts? The President? Either choice would run afoul of what Madison wrote in Federalist No. 48: “The legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people.”

In truth, none of this is lost on amendment backers. At a recent news conference, Mr. Gingrich, who is a historian himself, was asked about the contradictions between the principles of “The Federalist” and the principles of the balanced-budget amendment. He said he was confident that the framers of the Constitution would like the changes, and that the Federalists would hardly have allowed for amendments had they thought the Constitution perfect. “Jefferson said every generation needs its own revolution,” Mr. Gingrich added.

Yes, but then again, Jefferson did not write the Constitution or “The Federalist.” And he was a Democrat.

Photo: Alexander Hamilton, one of the writers of “The Federalist.”

Phones and flamenco dancers show their stuff at Barcelona Mobile World Congress 2013

The Mobile World Congress 2013 in Barcelona attracted 72,000 visitors in February. Even with eight airplane hanger-sized buildings the Congress felt busy as central station at rush hour. Nokia, Samsung and other big players had elaborate temporary buildings within the hangers. Apple and Google stayed away. Mozilla created a buzz with its new mobile operating system, modeled on the Firefox browser and meant to compete with Android. I tried a small, full-function ZTE smart phone running the Mozilla OS and found it smooth and intuitive. Telefonica will sell it in Brazil for €60 to €75 ($80 to $100), and that seems to be without a contract. Europe comes later.

After two-and-a-half days working for my client I took a few hours to wander around. Tucked away in the far recesses of the cavernous buildings were quirky gems, like tiny solar cell arrays that charge an iPhone 50 percent in six hours, Chinese knock-offs of Samsung phones one generation behind and a whole lot cheaper, and a flamenco dancer in full regalia dancing for a well-known chip maker (not precisely sure of the connection, but it was entertaining). Between the buildings I sat in the driver’s seat of a modified Ford, let go of the steering wheel, and it parked itself.

One of my favourite finds was a Korean company displaying tiny add-ons for Samsung and iPhone mobiles, none much larger than bud earphones. One is the A-Scan portable breathalyzer, which plugs into the headphone jack. Blow gently and it displays your blood alcohol level. Mine was zero until I took a sip of the excellent Catalan wine they provided, and then it shot up to levels that would have prohibited me from parking the Ford.

The iLucir portable body fat analyzer requires you enter your height and weight into the phone. Pinch the left side with your left thumb and forefinger, do the same on the right, and your body fat-to-weight ratio pops up. What did it show? I’d better head to the gym more often.

The EFTA court, a little dog with a big bite

My book review for European Voice describing Carl Baudenbacher’s strategy for turning a court that handles one percent of the European Economic Community into a player with the European Court of Justice, which handles the other 99 percent. Baudenbacher is president of the EFTA Court in Luxembourg.

european voice dog with a bite by hotel3652

A system that goes round and round

Take a look at the video below, which I took at a parade  in Brussels in May, 2010, near the shut-down bourse. It is a whimsical mix of artists, neighbourhood people, young and old, all quite creative. It is Belgium at its best — the same Belgium that produced the Flemish artists, that fabricates the world’s best dark chocolate, and makes some of the world’s best beer. Artisans and artists, with a surrealistic bent, taking a nod to Rene Magritte and James Ensor.

As recounted in “Guns of August,” Belgium is famous for having slowed the German invasion that opened World War I. Today it is a member of NATO. But no one would mistake a country of 10 million people for a major international military power..

Most of all, it has a democracy that can seem seem strange and out of balance. However, I would argue that it is no more out of balance than the form which democracy has taken in California. The problem is that in California there is too much direct democracy; in Belgium too little. Both are damaging.

Look at the wheel below. It is an analog for what is happening right now as the feuding parties try to form a government and find themselves going round and round.