The tiny Armenia, with a population of 3M, has 27 chess grandmasters (out of 1,200 in the whole world), proving repeated exposures to an activity will create the cluster of “geniuses”, as posited by Tyler Cowen here.

As for Armenia’s monopoly in chess, much of it can be attributed to a nation-wise obsession with the sport, connecting the sport with nationalistic pride, materialized by an outpour of both prestige and financial rewards for winners, and the infrastructure to replenish the stock.

A sophisticated structure is in place to develop the next generation of Aronians. Down the road from the match venue is a classroom where the country’s best juniors are brought to train. There’s a boy who won the European under-10s, another who was under-12 world champion. In fact, all the children have won medals in national or international competitions. In the afternoon they watch the grandmaster games. In the morning, after physical exercise, there are four or five hours of chess coaching: three-minute blitz games, opening theory, endgame technique and sessions on tactics. To inspire them, the floor is made up of 64 black-and-white squares.

The path to success sounds unsurprisingly formulaic, also applied in earnest by the Georgians in its attempt to capture Junior Eurovision. The key?  A psyched up nation with high expectations, combined with systemic training and ample resources.

Last year, Georgia stormed to victory with three children singing in an imaginary bee language. Eager to defend its title, Georgia put this year’s act through four months of training and arrived in Kiev with an entourage of 21 people, including two vocal coaches, a stage producer, a choreographer and a psychologist.

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It’s a white, white world, after all

by Dana on January 4, 2010

The world is bracing for a pretty white winter by the look of it, no doubt vexing the climatologist and throwing the curve off a little bit with the cold.

  • India is unaccustomed to, but dealing with and extreme cold across the north, where temperature’s dropped below zero.
  • In north east China and South Korea, particularly around the capital Beijing and port city of Tianjin, as well as Seoul, were blanketed in up to 30 centimetres of  snow, temperature has dropped to minus 32 degrees Celcius, and 90% of all flights were cancelled.
  • Eastern US is also expecting more snow in the coming day, between 4 to 8 inches around the Great Lakes, between 1 to 3 over the rest of the region.
  • All around Europe, from England and France, to Germany and Poland, from Norway down to Spain, stretching to the seasonally brutal Ukraine and Russia, it’s snow, snow, snow, and more snow.
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In a classic example of how we internalize outside events through our own experiences, however incomplete, and how our opinions about “them” say more about us than anything else, consider this.

China executed Briton Akmal Shaikh December 29.  It’s a relatively straightforward case, the guilt of the executed was never in dispute.  Various human rights organizations, along with the British government protested, citing his mental state, and asked for clemency.

And netizens reacted.

The British audience, as seen in the Daily Mail’s comment thread that counted 1,650 in total, with little exception, fiercely supported the Chinese decision. It says quite a bit about how the British feel about their government and the current state of affairs.

- People are genuinely fed up with Britain’s lax laws, and lament a system that preserves due process and individual liberty at the expense of protecting the well-beings of the greater society.
- Many have firsthand experienced of a society traumatized by poverty, fearful of its youth, and unable to contain or control the combustion when drugs are added to the mix.  There’s little sympathy or public support for rehabilitation of drug dealers – a system plagued by re-offenders perhaps, and the term that captures the overwhelming majority of sentiment is “vehement hatred”.
- There’s a splash of racism here and there.
- Gordon Brown is not well-liked, to say the least.

Americans, on the other hand, faced with high incarceration rate and nagging security concerns both inside and outside of the homeland, guilt-ridden with almost-certain wrongful convictions and executions that have taken place throughout the years, and disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of its harsh penal system, are much more critical of the Chinese.

And true to matters close to the American heart, the discussion swerves from criticizing Chinese protectionist policies, its abysmal human rights records, to the greater “war on terrorism”.   More so, Americans seem much more concerned with the idea of due process, the potential error of executing an innocent man, and seem to give much more credence to Shaikh’s defense of mental incapacitation – one that almost all British readers view with cynicism.

Reykjavik - Borgartún

Image by jaime.silva via Flickr

I finished Meltdown Iceland a while ago, and have been meaning to post some thoughts on the book.  Compared to the epic by Andrew Ross Sorkin, which I’m slowly munching through now, Roger Boyes’ story of the Icelandic collapse is a fast read at only 200+ pages.  The actual events surrounding the financial collapse in Iceland happened quickly, but the lead-up much longer. Outside of war time reports and travel journals, this is probably one of the closest examinations of this small island by an outsider in a pretty long time.

Boyes offers a number of explanations for Iceland’s collapse, and much of it to do with the incongruence between its attempt to modernize its economy, and its inability to modernize its political system first.  This was in stark contrast with Michael Lewis’ portrayal of Iceland last year, where he squared the failure on pride, arrogance and lack of diversity of the islanders.

Outsized ambition

Can the Icelandic be faulted for being ambitious?  Michael Lewis attacked the country on its most rampant expansion of the banking industry in the history of mankind, amassing debts amounting to 850% of its GDP.  And he asks point blank:

Why should Iceland suddenly be so seemingly essential to global finance? Or: Why do giant countries that invented modern banking suddenly need Icelandic banks to stand between their depositors and their borrowers—to decide who gets capital and who does not? And: If Icelanders have this incredible natural gift for finance, how did they keep it so well hidden for 1,100 years? At the very least, in a place where everyone knows everyone else, or his sister, you might have thought that the moment Stefan Alfsson walked into Landsbanki 10 people would have said, “Stefan, you’re a fisherman!” But they didn’t. To a shocking degree, they still don’t.

Why don’t we get more foreign news?

by Dana on December 16, 2009

Kosher McDonalds restaurant in Ashqelon, Israel

Image via Wikipedia

Alisa Miller’s entry in Seth Godin’s new eBook caught my attention (pg 34).  In the entry, and a TED presentation, she talks about the abysmal state of global news coverage by the US press corps. Anybody who’s ever been subjected to around-the-clock styled American news programs can nod at the following.

Too often, American commercial news is myopic and inwardly focused.

This leads to a severe lack of global news.  And increasingly, a shortage of “enterprise journalism” – journalistic depth built over time through original sources – that provides the context and enables thoughtful response.

Too often, the news sticks to crime, disasters, infotainment, and horse-race politics.  Many important topics such as education, race and ethnicity, science, environment, and women and children’s issues are often less than 5% of all news combined.

Much of widely-seen online news isn’t better – it’s often just re-circulates the same stories.

The result: much of our news can’t be called “knowledge media” – content that builds insight about our world.

Things happen all the time, everywhere.  What gets made news, and what doesn’t, more often or not depends on where the news take place, and whether the happenstance in question belonged to one of the above-mentioned items deemed headline-worthy.  When we think about it, it’s really not at all unlike an abundance of trees falling in a remote forest.  Trees fall all the time, but only those that fall at the right time, at the right place, witnessed by the right bystander that deem it important enough, will have their fate made known to the world.

As indicated by Miller, Americans are becoming more, not less curious about what’s going on around the world, aove and beyond what the cable networks are able to deliver. It is evident, because British media outlets  that do a much better job with their foreign correspondents are eating into the audience pie. BBC and Guardian, not to mention the revered Economist, all command respect and eyeballs of those across the Atlantic.  But with cost-cuts and and ensuing shutting downs of foreign bureaus, especially for on-air networks in the US, we hardly get a glimpse of the outside world beside bombings and disasters.  That job has been relegated to public broadcast outlets such as PBS, NPR, and new private outfits the likes of Current and GlobalPost.

{{nl|eigen foto, Looi}}

Image via Wikipedia

Last weekend was Sinterklaas in the Low Countries.  I can hardly explain why a thinner version of Santa Claus would want to takes off from sunny Spain to the cold and wet Netherlands by boat while dressed like the Pope, then once transferred on horseback, manages to deliver presents to adoring Dutch children and adults alike.  Long story short, Sinterklaas and all the gift-giving activities take place beginning of December, whereas Christmas is de-coupled from more shopping, and is celebrated without too much more fuss.

Sint does not come alone, but with helpers.  Not with elves, because that would just be too silly.  They are called Zwarte Pieten, or, black Piets.  Which in a country as white as the Netherlands, means scores of blonde children would cover their faces and hands in black paint.  It’s all good and well for the happy-go-lucky Dutchies, but make any racially aware outsiders perk up.  In a recent gathering with Dutch and non-Dutch alike, a Canadian compatriot asked tentatively (and I suspect fully aware of the answer but curious of the response nonetheless): “are Zwarte Piets black because they are, umm, African, or because they get dirty from climbing down chimneys?”

The answer is of course the latter.  But our Dutch friends’ cheery answers clearly reflect the lack of awareness, that, its history as one of the pre-eminent slave trading countries in Europe back in the days has largely escaped public consciousness, along with the ironies and cultural sub-contexts of “black helpers”.

A few years ago, the name of a popular chocolate-covered marshmallow teacake made headlines in the Netherlands.  In the US, they are marketed as Mallomars; in Canada, chocolate puffs. But over here on the Continent, they were sold under various names that translated to “negro kisses” in English (Negerkys in Danish, Negerkuss in German,  Negerzoenen in Dutch, and most hilarious of them all, Negerinnentetten, or negress tits, in good old Flemish).

Towards a cyborg future, and other questions

by Dana on November 29, 2009

International Mother Language Day Monument, As...

Image via Wikipedia

I have trouble keeping up with my blog, not because there’s a lack of subjects I want to explore, but because of lack of resources – in both time and knowledge, to find a satisfactory ending to the questions at hand.  Here are some thoughts that never got finished and made it to the blog.  Maybe in 2010, I’ll be able to figure out a better way to articulate them in full.  I cannot be the first to ask such questions.  So, please share if you have opinions, theories, or answers to the below.

- What drives one country or region to excel in painting, and others to writing, and yet another to, say, architecture? What kind of geo-political, cultural, social, and economic tour de force were in place to allow for one area of arts to flourish over another?  For its size and population, Ireland has produced a disproportionate number of brilliant poets, playwrights and writers, known for their caustic wit and insight into human nature.  Is literary genius somehow correlated with economic misery?  That could explain how Russia also pumped out a whole generation of writers that produced account of sufferings and tragedies on an epic scale.  While for Germany, philosophers ruled in the 18th century, in response to the nation building tasks or merely a coincidence resulting from a cluster of highly intelligent and timely chatters within a single linguistic group at that time?  I would like to know what makes Scandinavians such greater designers, is there a history of industrial design in the region?

- There are books I read for the pure linguistic pleasures rather than the stories.  For books like, say, Lolita, what would translation into another language mean?  On the flip side, how much of the nuance, wordplay, and irony is lost when we read books translated from Russian, French, or German literature?  If our mother tongue do not belong to one of the more widely published languages in the world, and much of our readings is dependent on the success of translations, then how much gets lost in translation?

It’s not always what it seems

by Dana on November 14, 2009

not-what-it-seems My friends have stopped asking me about what it’s like to live in the Netherlands now. Those that have never set foot in the country have images of a land of hedonism, where prostitutes seduce their customers from behind glass windows in the Red Light District, coffee shops with herbal goodies and space cakes line the streets, where people are happy and gay with no fears of reprisal.

Those that have walked the cobbled streets of Amsterdam light up when they reminisce the pretty canals and friendly neighbourhoods. It’s clean, safe, compact, and anything goes.  The place has the kind of post-modern, post-religious, post-gender reputation that’s the wet dream of left-leaning liberals.

It’s not so, simple. Northern Europe can be very deceiving that way, because on the surface, they just seem like a blonder, more homogenous, more socialist, and more compact version of North America, with a bit more history.  Travelling to any of the capital cities of those countries, you will find that everyone speaks English, menus in restaurants are more or less the same trendy fusion stuff with a local twist, basic infrastructure and layout of cities uniformly confusing.

But don’t always believe the advertising.  Here’s what took me a couple of year to figure out.

Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. Obviously, a country is much more diverse than its capital.  Leaving Amsterdam and venturing into the rest of the country, you would rightly expect to hear less English, see less foreigners, and experience next to no flamboyant display pleasure-seeking activities.  In reality, most Dutch do not consider Amsterdam Dutch.  Instead, many are apologetic for the way the country is defined by the exaggerated reputation of one city and its liberal policies.  Which leads to the next point.

The Dutch are conservative. Not conservative like bible-thumping moralists that rant and preach.  But conservative in a post-religious society, where Calvinism holds much sway in what’s acceptable and what’s not .  The Dutch’s foray into legal prostitution has more to do with their attitude of “to each their own”, than a whole-hearted acceptance and embrace of the practice.  Besides, it’s hard to regulate, never mind tax an activity, unless you legalize it.  And the Dutch wants to tax everything.

network When we think about our web presence and connectivity, many of us have a number of overlapping networks roughly sectioned-off – public versus private, personal versus professional, all-encompassing versus interest-based.

This is all too obvious for a large group of professionals that leverage LinkedIn to network, generate sales leads, recruit, and get hired for jobs.  LinkedIn effectively brought recruiting to the 21st century, by mirroring our offline behaviour with online equivalents.  Work experience?  Check.  Education?  Check.  References in the form of recommendations?  Check.

LinkedIn took offline professional networking online, thus creating a space where all the schmoozing can take place, plus it stores your Rolodex for all to see. It works extremely well on many levels – its popularity and profitability is a testament to that success.  But I wonder whether if it will be comfortable with its current demographic profile – middle-aged, manager-and-above wealthy clientele, or innovate along with its younger generation of users.

The biggest flaw I see with LinkedIn, is how closely it parallels our offline career trajectory and all the limitations that come with it.  A resume is backward looking, because it reflects choices we’ve made in the past, whether they be our educations or careers. And it can be incredibly constraining, because it doesn’t open one up with more opportunities, should they want a chance at a non-typical, cross-industry move.  At least not without a degree or piece of paper to signal that intention.

When I was in university, we had a bunch of career counselors that implored us to develop “transferrable skills” by telling us how people our age will have more likely than not, have between 5-10 different careers throughout our lives.  Not jobs, not industries, but careers.  That seems fantastical, even in today’s economy, where fluidity is at its peak.  Moving into an entirely different career path without connection, a huge break, or getting further educated in that field, is next to impossible.

content-delivery-platform Why the content delivery business is a hard business, if subscription and advertising’s all you got.

For something truly disruptive to occur, the current system has to be broken beyond repair, and the incoming “disruption” has to be powerful enough (momentum driven by adoption), and sustainable enough (financially feasible, as far as business models are concerned), to overwhelm the status-quo.

A lot of individuals and businesses are fawning over the demise of “old media”, by attempting to deliver content in a way that’s fast, unique, exclusive, customizable, or pushed and pulled in whichever direction that users want.  Most are convinced that money can be made if only the formula is tweaked just so.  I’m not so convinced.  Remember this, “just because somebody destroys an existing business model, doesn’t imply it is itself, a good business model.”

Bearing in mind that all of the below already exist and are available for free, the next generation of content delivery platform will have to have all of the following wrapped in a free package, and more:

  • It will need a Friendfeed-esque system that floats the best of the best, aggregating someone’s social media profile along with their friends’, including Twitter, Digg, Delicious, RSS readers, and direct web surfacing.
  • Recommendations should be provided based on both one’s social network, customizable settings, and automated filtering.
  • The quantity and quality of the content should both be adjustable.  One should be allowed to set both thresholds according to their needs. After all, you don’t want to be overwhelmed by the quantity, nor underwhelmed by the quality.
  • The content should be personalizable, but not so personalizable to the extent that it prevents you from discovering cool new things out there.

If and when this technological and design feat is accomplished, it’s time to worry about the business model. Consumers are hard to please: they are fickle, prickly, cheap, and worst of all, not all that loyal.  This is all but spelled out in the success, or for some, the lack of, that many social networks have encountered.

My first blog post on our corporate blog

by Dana on October 11, 2009

Blog post at my company’s corporate blog, making a case of what I’ve been up to for the past half year.  Click here to read it!

Analyzing my own online reading habits

by Dana on October 4, 2009

cat reading While talking to someone today, I realized how far we had come in terms of the way we consume information online.

We used to be destination driven.  Which is say, we used to visit sites directly, bookmarking sites that we visited frequently or going straight to the url.  RSS changed all that by pushing news out.  The services like delicious made the task of bookmarking thousands of interesting links online more manageable, by taking it to the cloud.

Still, we are constantly looking for better ways to reach more information that’s pertinent to our lives – both to enhance our professional life, and to keep us entertained.  I still go to a few sites directly both on the web or through my mobile – a few of the mainstream sites where quality and quantity are consistent.  Everything else I read online comes to me through one of a number of ways.

For breaking news, one of my favourite sources is BNO News, which also comes with a highly recommended iPhone app that I haven’t had the chance to try out yet.  It’s short, it’s to the point, it’s consistently 10-15 minutes ahead of sources like the CNN and BBC.  As far as keeping up with fact-based, time-sensitive, large-scale events, this is nothing different than the hourly bulletin we used to get on TV.  Only it’s on demand, and takes 10 seconds to scan.

I still spend a significant amount of time scanning through my RSS reader, though I wish there could be something better.  The quantity of content I get in a reader is sometimes too overwhelming in quantity and underwhelming in quality, with the number of unread feeds easily surpassing 1,000 if my account is not scanned for a day or two.  To keep this under control, I’ve set up a number of folders to organize feeds by topic, which can then be prioritized when reading.  I’ve also unsubscribed from a number of high-post sites. Time is limited, either it goes off the radar completely, or I go to the site directly.

netherlands Some random observations and the going-ons of life in the Netherlands.

An era of liberal backlash

Over the past half year, the Dutch government has reduced the number of legal prostitution businesses in the Red Light District.  Amsterdam city officials see their duty to deliver their city from sleaze, even as they scrap a 100-million euro business.  The official line is the concern over human trafficking and illegitimate operations linked to prostitution.  But skeptics see the sudden enthusiasm for gentrifying Amsterdam as nothing more than greed, where the city is buying up real estate with public fund, and will most likely make some good money by selling or leasing out properties later.

The moral crusade is spreading, where talks of preventing soft drug sales to tourists and limiting the consumption of such to locals has turned into reality.  It looks like the whole drug-tourism trend will come to a quiet close in the Netherlands, supposedly putting an end to drug-related crimes, including smuggling and trafficking.

It is interesting to ponder why the Dutch adopted the legalization of pot in the first place in the 1970s.  That was the time when heroin was fast becoming the hard drug of choice in the underground scene.  And the legalization of soft drugs was introduced to separate the legal soft drugs market, and the illegal, hardcore drugs market.  It then allowed the government to regulate, and, effectively, tax, the soft drug market.  Similarly, prostitution was legalized so the government could more effectively monitor, and control the entire trade.  To put it cynically, government became the ultimate pimp.

Prostitution and the “red light district” in Utrecht

The red light district area in Utrecht is one of the most interesting ones I’ve seen all across the Netherlands.  In small towns, it’s not uncommon to see a turn off a regional highway, where a number of parking stalls are set up for quickies with some ladies of the night picked up close by.  In Amsterdam, the infamous district is full of tourists and gawkers.  But in Utrecht, it is most definitely open for some real business.

How to get women to have more babies?

by Dana on September 2, 2009

kids Many rich (and some not so rich) countries are watching the train wreck that is their demographic profile, heading for the cliff.  Japan is the obvious case, Germany and some southern European countries are doing almost as badly.  A number of surprise entries – South Korea, Russia, and even China, are facing rapid changes in their population make-up, thanks to rapid growth and a number of previously unforeseen second-order social changes.

There are two ways to slow down an ageing population.  The most obvious one – immigration, means you can cherry-pick the young and taxable coming in the door.  The other one is, to put it crudely, is breeding.  Now leaving the immigration option aside, to achieve a birthrate high enough to hit the replacement number is a huge challenge for a large number of countries.  It’s time to realize this: consistent low birthrate is the culmination of rational decisions made as a result of unresolved, and sub-optimal social, cultural and financial concerns.

1. Public and private policies must be geared to alleviate the burden of childbearing. For women, leaving well-paying jobs behind to rear children with little guarantee of career security once they are back in the workplace, makes those lost years so much more unpalatable.  Maternity leave options and firm-sponsored daycare options in a few countries are still too few and far in between, and those “benefits” are still the first to go in times of budget cuts and economic turmoil.  Additionally, the added burden of children, and the loss of one income during those cash-strapped years will make couples think twice before rearing a few in succession. Thus, both public and private sectors must work in parallel to alleviate and compensate women for this lingering wound.

2. Gender equality is essential. Why, you might ask?  Don’t conservative societies typically lead to more stereotypical gender roles, so either contented or suffering housewives will fulfill their duties in birthing babies? Not in economically developed societies with a chauvinistic bend.

europe_or_us I’ve followed this US versus Europe discussion with some interest, as I get asked a similar version of the question occasionally (substitute US for Canada).  Having read the comments here and here, I agree with some of the more measured comments made.  There is no short, one-size-fit-all answer to the question.  Because it depends on so many factors: why you are there, who you are with, what you do and what you really, really believe in.  Self-anointed cultural gurus that jump in those debates with unwavering points of views and sweeping generalizations rub me the wrong way: a few months, or even years of living in any place does not make anybody an expert in comparative politics or sociology . Therefore, with the utmost humbleness, I submit a few observations.

1. Positive externalities come at a dear price and minute size.

When it comes to Europe’s real or perceived beauty, there are usually two camps.  One group is full of adoration – oh to live within such loveliness, cultural diversity and respect for history and culture. The other group is dismayed by the implications of (sometimes lack of) infrastructural spending needed to keep them running, and more importantly, and the day-to-day realities of living in centuries-old towns.

It is not easy.  I have been to some old Amsterdam houses.  The ones built back in the day when property tax was levied based on the horizontal width of a house.  To maximize living space, stairs were made as narrow as humanly possible, to the point where going up certain ones requires crawling on all fours.  Most constructions prior to the 70s have no elevators.  Property developers stopped just short of 4 stories to avoid having to put one in, as per regulation.  You can then appreciate the difficulties of getting heavy furniture up the stairs.  To alleviate that problem, many canal houses were built slightly slanted to allow for a hook-and-rope lever system to haul things up through the front balcony.  Comfortable and convenient it’s not, but tolerable and pragmatic? Most of the time.