The recession as experienced by the Irish

Antique engraving of 'Emigrants leaving Ireland'

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Like other pockets of Europe, Ireland experienced phenomenal growth in the 2000s.

Like Iceland for example, both relatively poor before major economic changes took place, soared to unimaginable heights during the boom, and now shot down to earth and licking their wounds.

But are the Irish more mentally equipped to deal with the recession, given their not-so-distant memories of poverty and hardship?

We have a long and proud history of poverty, I don’t know if that helps. When I was growing up, you never asked another Irish person what they did for a living, and you never turned a beggar from the door. These are lyrical and dangerous clichés, of course (though incidentally true): Ireland was by no means a classless society. Even so, I do see differences from other countries in the play of rage, entitlement and delight around money: who has it, who deserves it, who gets cross.

An insightful narrative of the recession months, as seen by the Irish.

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In Russia, 2010 clears out cheap vodka bottles to make paths for procreation

en: Vodka museum in Mandrogi, Leningrad Oblast...

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Russia is trying to curb the excessive drunkenness that’s sent many of her young and able-bodied men to their early graves, leaving the country with rapid population decline, its women desperate for spouses, and a general sense of, shall we say, despair.

As of the new year, Russian government has effectively doubled the price of its cheapest drink.  Now the cheapest half litre of vodka will set you back 89 roubles (about $3).

The drive to reverse the trend of declining population is so strong that the government is effectively bribing its people to have more children.

So giving a Russian $9,200 in cash is like giving an American $36,112. Would that be enough to convince lots of Americans to assume the financial responsibilities associated with an additional child?

But that is the Russian carrot to Portugal’s stick when it comes to population management.  As part of its 2006 pension reforms, pension contribution rates are tied to the number of children one has.

Contributions would stay unchanged for people with two children, decrease if they had more than two and increase if they had fewer.

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Half of a man is better than none at all! Russians, Malaysians, and South Africans agree

Big Love

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And a half-warm bed is better than an altogether cold one!

I’m stealing the headline from this Guardian article, that due to a clear shortage of available men in rural areas, the good women of Siberia (and some part of Mongolia) are now advocating polygamy on their men’s behalf.  Say what you may, but when the day comes, no principles or gender progressiveness can stand in the way of, demography!

The Russian population is falling by 3% a year – and there are 9 million fewer men than women. Nationalists, such as the eccentric leader of the Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, claim that introducing polygamy will provide husbands for “10 million lonely women” and fill Mother Russia’s cradles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly then, Humphrey’s investigations have uncovered women who believe that “half a good man is better than none at all”. “There are still some men around – they might be running things, with a job as an official, for example, or they might be doing an ordinary labouring job, but either way, there aren’t very many of them,” she says. “Women say that the legalisation of polygamy would be a godsend: it would give them rights to a man’s financial and physical support, legitimacy for their children, and rights to state benefits.”

And it’s not just the rural demographics forcing women into polygamy.

In Malaysia, well-educated and urban women are proudly continuing this prehistoric practice.  And unlike Big Love, the man in the centre of all this doesn’t have to hide it, nor be straitjacketed by the ideas of progressiveness or modernity.  And the women are resigned to the fact, and very practical.

“Men are by nature polygamous,” said Dr. Rohaya, Mr. Ikram’s third wife, flanked by the other three women and Mr. Ikram for an interview on a recent morning. The women were dressed in ankle-length skirts, their hair covered by tudungs, the Malaysian term for headscarf. “We hear of many men having the ‘other woman,’ affairs and prostitution because for men, one woman is not enough. Polygamy is a way to overcome social ills such as this.”

As for the households, it sounds just like some kind of sisterhood of travelling pants social club, complete with baby-sitting co-op and soup kitchen!

The wives usually meet Mr. Ikram at the family house but they say there is no strict arrangement, and Mr. Ikram sometimes comes to their individual homes during the week.

On weekends, at the family house, the women take turns doing the cooking.

“We share clothes,” Dr. Rohaya said. “We’re like sisters, really.”

Last but not least, rounding off an excellent week in the world of polygamy, South African President Jacob Zuma has married for the fifth time.  He has one ex-wife, and another has committed suicide, making the latest bride the country’s third first lady.

There’s also another fiancée in waiting, and more rumoured betrothals.

From passive-aggressive notes to violence: a perfect Swedish saga

Laundry room
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What happens to a highly individualistic population with homogenous expectations, hates confrontation, but nevertheless trapped with tedious aspects of communal living?  You get passive aggressive notes! It’s just like college, but worse.

In the egalitarian heaven that is Sweden, many rental units have common laundry rooms, which is pretty normal.  But they come with a plethora of booking, cleaning, and maintenance rules.

Communal laundries were introduced in the 1930s as part of a project to raise living standards. By the 1950s, more than 80 percent of apartment blocks in Sweden had shared washing machines and dryers, as well as a strict set of rules on booking times and cleaning duties. It was perhaps inevitable that laundry rooms became battle zones.

In Stockholm in 2008, more than 70 cases of laundry-related threats and beatings were reported to police. Much more common are the angry, threatening, and insulting notes some people leave about timekeeping, tidiness, and other infractions.

As someone who’s gone through various versions of laundromats during both dorm life and in shared housing, it is hard to imagine this level of agitation and mental exertion on a matter this minute.

[The victim] cleaned the fluff from the filter on the tumble dryer and wiped all of the washing machines she had used.  But the 60-year-old woman, expecting an altogether more thorough job, got in front of the door and blocked her neighbour’s exit. The time was 1pm.
“You have to clean up. I’m not going to leave you. We’ll keep going until 7 o’clock,” the self-styled guardian of the laundry room is alleged to have said.

While the laundry phenomenon might be distinctly Swedish, but the slavish adherence to rules – both explicit and implicit, is not at all uncommon in the North.  Add some everyday pettiness to the mix, and we have ourselves some distinctly pedestrian Nordic drama.

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The battle over how the world should feel about the past

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Time’s tough, so it’s no surprise that everyone’s a bit nostalgic.

Old(er) and poor(er) Russians miss a time when the word “oligarch” had yet to invade their vocabulary, and things could be bought with kopeks (cents).

Many say they also miss being citizens of a huge, sprawling multiethnic superpower that seemed to command respect in the world.

“I used to travel all over the USSR, and was welcomed everywhere,” says Inna Lepneva, a retired TV sound engineer. “Now the country is split up, no one likes Russians anymore, and good relationships are ruined. Nothing has changed for the better.

Nowadays, postmodern nostalgia is worn on trendy T-shirts by a new crop of ironic or uber-patriotic young hipsters. Verdict of the past is battled out at length on TV and in bookstores.

Since 1991 Russians have been bombarded with articles, books and television programmes denouncing Bolshevik crimes: the Red Terror under Lenin and Trotsky; the Great Terror under Stalin; the famine of 1932-33; the gulag; the deportation of individuals punished for, or suspected of, collaborating with Nazi Germany; and the repression of the Brezhnev era. The battle for memory combined with the promotion of democratic commercial values has been keenly fought by the media, journalists and historians, backed by a vast Western, chiefly US, network of institutions, universities and foundations.

In former East Germany, Ostalgie is pervasive.  In Berlin, a whole souvenirs’ industry around former-East German products such as Ampelmaennchen has sprung, getting your passport stamped with fake border crossing visa, and posting with former Communist street guards have become tourist attractions.  Part of Berlin’s charm was its run-downness, and the bourgersie version of poverty-porn.

Clunky Trabants belching car exhaust along Karl-Marx-Allee. Red-and-yellow East German flags fluttering from storefronts. Retro-chic bars that resemble cold-war bomb shelters. The Berlin Wall may have fallen 20 years ago next month, but in certain pockets of this pulsating German capital, it seems to be going back up – at least for those too young to recall what life was like in the German Democratic Republic. From stylish hotels that resemble 1970s Soviet housing to boutiques that elevate kitschy East German goods to high design, Berlin is still divided – on whether the Iron Curtain was cool.

Populist broadcasters in the US are also cashing on people’s nostalgia.  But before people dive straight over the edge of sentimentality, it’s a good thing Jon Stewart goes for the jocular.

Not feeling so nostalgic anymore, are we?

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True authenticity test of Scandinavian food? It lasts longer than you do

The cafeteria of the Ikea store in Red Hook, B...
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Seeing there’s few eating establishments outside of the region dedicated to spread of Scandinavian food, an Atlantic food writer attempts to translate this raw and frozen food culture to us.  Through the market at Ikea.

When food writers write about Scandinavian food, they tend to wax (and wane) about the freshness and naturalness of the cuisine and describe it as close to nature. That’s true–fish from the ocean and all that–but it is not quite the real picture. My two main entrée ingredients were frozen meatballs and frozen potato flakes, and there was something properly Scandinavian about that. In fact nothing I bought was fresh. Everything was preserved food. That is perhaps the true essence of Scandinavian eating: food that can last longer than you do. There are stories of farmers with storehouses containing edibles that go back more than one generation.

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It’s Christmas for Armenians, almost Christmas to many more in the East

The Inside of an Eastern Orthodox church

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That’s right.  Tomorrow, most of the world’s Orthodox (that is, if you are of Russian, Macedonian, Serbian, Ukrainian, or Greek ancestry) and Coptic (Egyptian) Christians will celebrate a belated (or as some way, very early) Christmas.

But today, to our Armenian friends, it’s Shenorhavor Dzenount to you!

So why the date discrepancy?

The celebration, known to some as Theophany or simply Armenian Christmas, follows the original Julian calendar as opposed to the standard Western or Gregorian calendar. When Christians began to celebrate Christmas on Dec. 25 as dictated by the Romans, Armenians held to the original Jan. 6 date.

And what is special and specific to Armenian Christmas?  It’s the same obsession with oil.

It is believed that Armenian patriarchs somehow obtained some of the oil used to baptize Jesus.

Since then, patriarchs in Armenia have continually combined a portion of that oil with oils drawn from more than 40 plants.

The oil is then bottled and distributed from Armenia to Armenian churches around the world.

And tonight might look something like this if you’re Orthodox.  Merry Christmas!(?)

That is, if you don’t all end up going the way of the communists, and end up exchanging gifts on New Year’s Eve around a (joyless and) secular fir tree.

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So much for Jim Roger’s rally to learn Chinese: there’s no jobs for you anyway!

京剧《探谷·破敌》 {{fr|Opéra de Pékin "Gu pénétre...
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Jim Rogers moved to Singapore, so his daughters can learn Chinese!  Never mind the fact that Singaporeans speak debatable Chinese, as well as an amusing form of staccato English.

But now, it turns out that mastering this insanely difficult language will not guarantee you riches or any semblance of a respectable career!  Just listen to this ex-expat.

Everybody comes to China with a plan to strike it rich. Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse.


The simple fact is however, mastery of Chinese, no matter how good you are, is NOT a golden ticket to employment in the United States.

Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important is to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish.

Bottom line: simply mastering Chinese is not the golden meal ticket, and will not guarantee you a career, anywhere, in any way.

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Resigned, Japanese finance minister resigns

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Japan is screwed.

The post of finance minister is yet again vacant.

Last year, the finance minister Shoichi Nakagawa was alcoholic and sleepy before he did himself in.

And then, Japan changed guards.

Now, the new 77-year-old septuagenarian finance minister has decided not to go kamikaze over the country’s hopeless financial future, and quit while he’s still, alive.

The wrangling seems to be over political pressures in inflating the almost ballooning budget, and public debt, with more stimulus.

Not wasting ANY time, a new minister has been named.

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Hot Ukrainian PM fancies herself Eva Peron, will get to top by any braids necessary

Yulia Tymoshenko

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Sarah Palin’s not the only soccer mom/president wannabe/pitbull with lipstick out there.  The Ukrainian version, a.k.a. hottest head of state in the world, is dubbed the “Kiev chameleon” by TNR.  She’s been called Lady Macbeth with an authoritarian streak, and the female version of Vladimir Putin!

Tymoshenko also believes she’s the reincarnation of Eva Perón.

God help the Ukrainians.

“She was told she is the reincarnation of Eva Perón,” says Dmitry Vydrin, who was Tymoshenko’s close adviser for nearly a decade. “And she believes it. She admits it in closed circles. She copies her consciously and subconsciously.” There’s the elaborate, kaleidoscopic wardrobe; the bleached up-do; the theatrical mannerisms; the way the public rustles whenever she appears. “It’s that way of flirting with the public, of addressing them as ‘my loved ones,’” Vydrin says.

Ever since the rather unremarkable brunette turned herself into a blonde “goddess” with her signature braid and French couture, her popularity has soared.  So such so that the current Prime Minister is likely to win the presidential election in the coming weeks.

But the creator of the “Yulia” hair is not without critics.

“Image is very important in Ukraine,” says Mr Wilson. “It’s a very TV-based society, and television was the primary medium of the campaign.”

Detractors have scathingly described her metamorphosis as pretentious: a near biblical transformation, her hair wrapped on top of her head like a halo, complemented by flowing white angelic dresses.

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Here’s to seeing a different side of China

There’s the glossy and shiny China, and there’s the more subtle, nuanced, and realistic China as depicted by those beautiful pictures. ChinaSmack has assembled those pictures, along with stories of their subjects.  Worth a read.

And then there are art projects like this that speak louder, and sting harder than any petition or protests.  Grim social changes have their costs, as our protagonist demonstrates in silent defiance.

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Asian students loves to struggle, and struggling musicians love nobody more than Chopin

The ever so keen Asian music students are following the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, and continue to conquer the world of classical music, and on their own soil.

The Polish attempts to explain why Chopin is so popular in Asia.

“Chopin touches chords in the Asian soul that we can’t imagine exist under the surface of calm, smiling faces – on the contrary, they are throbbing with emotion under this social mask.”

Acknowledging the prestige attached to classical music and its novelty:

“I think the future of classical music lies in Asia. It needs classical music… the love for classical music there is incredible, perhaps even greater than in Europe.”

In the last twenty years, of all the top 5 prize winners, 9 out of the 21 came from either Korea, Japan, or China.

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France dictates its education structure, which in turn serves its centrally-planned overlord

The fact that the president of France has the right (and the time?) to dictate the country’s history curriculum seems rather absurd. The Economist concurs:

Perhaps the most striking thing about this row is not that French scientists will learn less history. It is that the central government still dictates to all schools exactly how much time to devote to each subject every week, down to the last minute. That is a legacy of Napoleon, who codified the curriculum—classics, history, rhetoric, logic, maths and physics—by an imperial decree in 1808. Just don’t expect all of next year’s school-leavers to know that.

But I’m sure the French don’t see it that way.  Take the French movie, The Class, which attempts to showcase the dynamism of a new generation of French classroom instructors.

The HuffPo critic says:

As a sociological document, the film testifies to how the French educational system — even today — is based on the idea that one does not “educate” students (i.e. “lead” them) but “forms” them, puts them in the moule. It is telling that the climax of Cantet’s film is a “disciplinary” problem. A boy is kicked out of school and forced to go back to Mali, because of an outburst in the classroom.

Indeed, The Class, despite its intentions to show dynamic pedagogy at work, reveals its the opposite: how “learning” in France consists of accumulating “facts”: basic mathematical and linguistic skills; points of geography and history; the properties of a triangle. A poem is discussed in terms of its meter, a country in terms of its rivers. The aim is not to inspire talents, but to accumulate enough facts to be a well-functioning citizen of the Republic.

And as testament to the depth of cultural divide between the French and the non-French.

“What a great film,” a French Belgian said. “It shows how hard it is to be a teacher today, to discipline these kids.”

A moment later, I spoke to an Anglo-Canadian journalist at the press coffee bar: “A great film,” he said. “Shows how oppressive the French school system still is. Everyone has to fit in, or they’re out. Look what they did to that boy from Mali!”

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Introverts in favour as corporate wind blowing away from the charismatic and the flashy

I’m pretty sure the corporate world did not discover the strength of introverted leaders just now, if you consider the myriads of virtues exhibited by those mystical introverts eloquently teased out in this Forbes article.

But it is possible that after the sometime dazzling but on a whole, hugely disappointing decade we’ve been handed by the last crop of business leaders, people are on the look out for a new model.

So are we ready for a new breed of corporate leadership? The thoughtful, silent, wise and stoic type?

I’m reminded of Jonathan Rauch’s excellent essay on introverts.

For one thing, extroverts are overrepresented in politics, a profession in which only the garrulous are really comfortable. Look at George W. Bush. Look at Bill Clinton. They seem to come fully to life only around other people. To think of the few introverts who did rise to the top in politics—Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon—is merely to drive home the point. With the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, whose fabled aloofness and privateness were probably signs of a deep introverted streak (many actors, I’ve read, are introverts, and many introverts, when socializing, feel like actors), introverts are not considered “naturals” in politics.

Extroverts are certainly over-represented in politics, it is hard to say whether the same is true for business, given a long list of success the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, among many more.

I would think the specific role one holds, i.e. founder, CEO, chief strategist, versus marketing director, PR consultant, or VP of sales, is more telling when matched with a certain personality trait, than the vague title of “business leader”.

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North Korea resolves to be less hostile in new year, the world’s accountants immediately dig up cost of reunification

Encouraged by Kim Jong-Il’s overtures during North Korea’s new year greetings that carried a reconciliatory tone, WSJ whips out some estimates of possible re-unification costs should the two sides of the peninsula puts down their arms and call it a day.

Whichever way you slice it, the Korean version of re-unification is going to make Germany’s still ongoing ordeal look like a stroll in the park.

Despite the $2 trillion West Germany has paid over two decades, Bonn had it relatively easy in the beginning. East Germany’s population was only one-quarter of West Germany’s, and in 1989 East German per capita income was one-third of the West’s. The two Germanies also had extensive trade ties.

North Korea’s per capita income is less than 5% of the South’s. Each year the dollar value of South Korea’s GDP expansion equals the entire North Korean economy. The North’s population is half the South’s and rising thanks to a high birth rate. North and South also barely trade with each other. …

At the low end, the Rand Corporation estimates $50 billion. But that assumes only a doubling of Northern incomes from current levels, which would leave incomes in the North at less than 10% of the South.

At the high end, Credit Suisse estimated last year that unification would cost $1.5 trillion, but with North Korean incomes rising to only 60% of those in the South. I estimate that raising Northern incomes to 80% of Southern levels—which would likely be a political necessity—would cost anywhere from $2 trillion to $5 trillion, spread out over 30 years. That would work out to at least $40,000 per capita if distributed solely among South Koreans.

Or maybe we are all getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe we are focusing on the wrong part of the very long speech, which may well be a cautiously strategic move to ensure the stability of the regime, in face of currency collapse and the resulting food shortage.

Back in November, North Korean government’s decision drop two zeros in its currency, and the strong public upheaval had surprised the regime. For people that depend heavily on the black market for their daily food needs, this threatened their very survival.

So it’s interesting that the new year speech has a new stress on food and agricultural security.

“Bring about a decisive change in the people’s lives by accelerating once again light industry and agriculture this year, as we look to the 65th anniversary of the founding of the Party!”

The key phrase is “by accelerating once again light industry and agriculture;” “once again” just means a continuation of the policies which led to the 150- and 100-Day Battles of 2009.

In any case, as the title shows clearly, the core concern of the North Korean regime is food security. Although the regime has been worried about food for a long time, this is the first time it has appeared in the title of a New Year’s Statement.

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