Saturday, December 10, 2016

What's Happening in Greece?


The question I get at virtually every booksigning event these days is, “How are things going in Greece?” It’s been out of the news over here in the US of late. In fact, it seems everything’s been out of the news over here except for one thing—and we all know what that is.

Regrettably, my standard answer is simply, “It’s a mess.”

Although tourists won’t notice, life goes on across most of the nation amid Great Depression levels of unemployment, a government and economy in disarray, leaders (of all parties) and their intentions suspect, and the people wondering when, if ever, things will get better.  

True, the US shares some of those same concerns, but our economy has recovered substantially since the crisis of 2008, and, of course we don’t have Germany and its EU minions pressing us to endure more pain on the economic rack for having gone along with a lot of their wrong-headed economic advice. Admitting they were wrong, and working toward a fair, amenable solution for all, requires a “learn to play nicely with others skill” they missed out in their “never admit you made a mistake” form of political schooling.

So, where’s it all headed? Good question. The current Greek government has several years left in its term—barring a call or need for earlier elections—and its Prime Minister is caught between a rock and a hard place. His government needs both more money from the EU, short term, to stay afloat, and a substantial debt reduction on what the nation owes for the country’s economy as a whole not to sink. 

In exchange, the EU has put forth its customary demands for further cuts in pensions and services, plus additional taxes.  What the ruling party has done so far to meet those sorts of past demands, has seriously cut into its Prime Minister’s popularity among his socialist supporters—despite his appearance as the only EU leader to attend Fidel Castro’s funeral, and speech comparing the Greek Revolution of 1821 to Cuba’s own of 1959. 

At the rate his popularity’s declining, he might soon rank down there with our own Congress…which I hasten to add, nevertheless keeps finding its incumbents returned to office.

To answer my own question, Greece and the EU seem once more to be playing their old game of financial chicken over the possibility and potential consequences of Greece leaving the EU.   BUT the track on which they race head-on at each other in their pedal-to-the metal macho game is a lot narrower and shorter now, what with Western governments facing imminent electoral assaults of the sort that brought the UK to vote itself out of the EU, and the US to vote Trump into the White House. 

Within months, Greece could have new opponents in their respective nation’s driver seat, each putting his or her individual national interests first, and little caring how Greece chooses to deal with its own destiny.

“Crash if you will, we’ll survive,” their new motto.

And then what happens? 

Well, if headlines like these from today’s Greek Newspaper, Ekathimerini, are any measure, I’d say Greece has a lot of work to do to get its house in order if it plans on making it on its own—outside or inside the EU.

For example:

“Greece May Miss the IT Revolution.” Political and educational reasons are causing Greece to “stand no chance of successfully becoming a modern state within Europe.”

“Courts Inundated With Primary Residence Protection Cases.”  More than 100,000 cases are pending.  Based upon Greece’s population of eleven million, compared to the US population of 320 million, Greece’s number of properties in such proceedings is approximate three times the current rate of that activity in the US.

“Refugee Response in Greece: A Flawed System.”  One can only imagine what it will be like should there be a parting of the ways with the EU.

“Islanders Seeking to Bypass Ferry Strike.”  An extended week-long strike by seamen over potential tax hikes and labor reforms required by the EU has farmers facing a loss of their crops and islands facing shortages.  Me first, will not work.

I think it’s time for all sides to wake up and smell the coffee.

A bit of visual trivia for you James Dean fans


Friday, December 9, 2016

Who voted for them anyway?

A week in politics is a long time.
The weak in politics are a dangerous thing.
Numpties in politics would be funny if they weren’t so dangerous.
Do you think a responsible adult could go and take Donald Trump’s phone off him, please?
Meanwhile here in Scotland things aren’t much better.
We have always prided ourself on being well educated. Indeed if you want to name it, a Scot probably invented it. Just look at the engines of the Starship Enterprise.
However, with successive SNP governments the standards of education are getting lower and lower and we are tumbling down the European league tables in terms of education and ability in core subjects.  The SNP spokesman said the report made ‘uncomfortable reading’. One would presume only for those of us remaining who have the capacity to read.

Meanwhile the SNP are dealing with issues on the world stage, Aleppo? Human trafficking? The Zika virus? No, the MSP for Midlothian North and Musselburgh (and the SNP treasurer) had demanded the UK government takes speedy action on Toblerone.
from this....
to this.... national scandal!
The decision to increase the spacing between each triangle of chocolate according to Mr Beattie was emblematic of the devastating consequences of BREXIT. He spoke at some length and was then criticised by other MSP’s for wasting time and public money.
A Tory MSP commented that the SNP have a simple quest to find grievance in all things, something I think we have all noticed.
Mr Beattie also once tabled a motion praising the restaurant that served his favourite curry.
Here are a few things that the Scottish Parliament have got up to when they should have been running the country at most, or not wasting public money at the very least.
A Tory MSP tabled a motion to congratulate 4 referees who had been selected to officiate at the Euro 2016 football tournament.
A Nationalist MSP might have got some support in her bid in asking Parliament to recognise the talents of rock band AC/DC – ¾ of whom were Scottish.
                                                   The Bon Scott statue in Kirriemuir
Another Nationalist MP forwarded a motion to praise his own daughter for winning a prize at school and somebody with sense wanted the Scottish parliament to back her in that Scotland should have its own entry in the European Song Contest. A few bagpipes and whirling kilts might just edge it for us.
They have also tried to ban the release of balloons. They wanted to commemorate the fact that a superhero in the x-men comic had proposed to his boyfriend but saving the best for last, and thinking about it, I do agree that the Shetland pony Socks should be congratulated by parliament for his moon walking antics in a TV advert for broadband.

Come to think of it on a deeper level, Shetland ponies as a breed are loyal, hard working, a wee bit stubborn but are impossible to tire out. They are so intelligent they can be trained as guide dogs for the blind and they last three times longer. So I think we should get Socks the Shetland pony to run the country.
                                                    Socks is a huge success - well, he is outstanding in his own field!!!
In fact I’m sure he has got a stable mate we can send over to the USA. That's not a bad idea you know Shetland ponies can’t use telephones.
Ps The SNP minister of transport has just been stopped by police for driving  without insurance. He said he was confused as he was separating from his wife. So, just so he has his  mind  on his job then.
Caro Ramsay 09 12 2016

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Murder Outback

Michael - Thursday

Australia is a pretty safe place on the whole—if you exclude the spiders, snakes, and poisonous sea stingers. So when a murder takes place it’s always big news. Of course, there are all the usual motives that play out in the cities, but there have been some really weird Deliverance-style cases in the Outback – Australians’ name for the back of beyond. They seem to have no motive, happen in the middle of nowhere, and are often very hard for the police to investigate for exactly those reasons.

Last week two French tourists were travelling north of Alice Springs on the road to Darwin (a 1000 mile journey). Alice Springs was 60 miles behind them, Ti Tree was 60 miles ahead. There was nothing between the two towns except the Outback desert, and a roadside stop called Connors Well—presumably a pretty significant spot in the days of the Outback explorers. No cell phone reception. (Yes, there actually are places remote enough for that to be the case.)

Police at the Connors Well roadstop
The couple pulled over, stretched their legs, and then another vehicle drew in. That was a pretty unusual event in any case. But the driver approached them and they exchanged small talk before he produced a knife and stabbed the man, Philippe Jegouzo, in the neck. Jegouzo’s wife managed to fight him off, and he jumped back into his vehicle and raced off, leaving the devastated woman watching her partner bleed to death.

She had a scrap of luck. Another car approached, she waved it down, and it turned out to be a couple, one of whom was a nurse. The nurse stayed with the woman and the victim and the two tried to save him, but he died at the scene.  Meanwhile the husband sped off, actually tailing the suspect’s car until he reached a road house 25 miles later where he was able to phone the police from a landline.

The police in Ti Tree set up road blocks and spotted the attacker's vehicle near the town, but, seeing them, the man abandoned the vehicle and escaped into the bush. However, the next morning they used a helicopter to track him down and arrest him.

Veleski and friend
The woman has just been released from the hospital in Alice Springs; the man, Pande Veleski, has been charged with murder. There seems to be no motive. He is a Melbourne man who likes “fishing and pigeon racing”. Dogs too apparently. He’s under psychiatric examination and his lawyer claims he may have “severe schizophrenia”. 

Peter Falconio and Joanne Lees
An even more bizarre case took place 15 years ago. Peter Falconio, a British tourist, and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees, were travelling at night on the same road, but about 150 miles further north near Barrow Creek. According to Lees, a man in a pickup flagged them down, claiming he’d noticed they had engine trouble. When Falconio went with him behind the car to investigate, he was shot. The attacker then tied up Lees and loaded her into his truck. He next turned his attention to Falconio’s body, and she managed to escape, hiding in the bush until the man gave up and drove off – presumably with the body.

Police with the vehicle
Nearly a year later, the police arrested Bradley Murdoch, who was subsequently identified by Lees, and was found to have minute traces of her DNA on his clothes. Nevertheless, he vehemently maintained his innocence. There was no apparent motive, but he’d been charged with, and acquitted of, an unconnected rape immediately before his arrest.

Bizarrely, Falconio’s body has never been found, and several people have claimed to have seen him alive after these event. (But then we still have people who see Elvis alive.) Nevertheless, a few people still maintain that Murdoch’s incarceration is a great injustice, although no one has suggested a convincing motive for why Falconio and Lees would cook up this story in order to make him disappear. There are multiple books on the case (including one by Lees herself) and a comprehensive website here

So what goes on in the heart of nowhere? Mr. Dick, the manager of the roadhouse outside Ti Tree, commented on the Jegouzo killing that it “would be bad for tourism”. Could be.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Sparks of Hope

Sujata Massey

 Speaking to supporters for his presidential in Iowa in 2008, Barack Obama said: "Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead, or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shoring from the fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it."

30 days after our election, I can see a number of things that give me hope.

First is 'Old Friends,' an Amazon Prime commercial that began running in the UK, Germany and the US last week to mark the holiday season. The advertisement features an Episcopal priest and a Muslim cleric in Britain who are faith leaders, rather than actors. This fact probably explains how beautiful the men's connection is. I could watch this ad time and again and still tear up. Jeff Bezos, who owns Amazon, made a powerful, quiet statement of hope to all. This commercial may be the first ever to feature a Muslim cleric. The risks taken by running 'Old Friends' closes the deal for me regarding Amazon. I am happy to shop from Amazon--just as I'm really pleased Bezos has owned and expanded the subscriber base of the Washington Post. 

Teamwork and forgiveness have also turned around the dire situation at the Standing Rock Reservation. To summarize a very complicated situation, the US government was planning to run part of the Dakota Access Pipeline for natural gas through a burial ground on a Sioux reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of Indians and their friends stayed present at Standing Rock in bitter cold to keep the digging from beginning. They were abused by the police. Some military veterans pledged to come to the reservation to protect the protestors from the police, and but a serious confrontation was averted. Last Sunday night, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it will not approve an easement allowing the DAP to run through the reservation. The leader of the Sioux community was asking protestors to return home with the hope that the situation will continue toward peaceful resolution. A moving forgiveness ceremony in which military veterans acknowledged their past role in oppressing Indians and taking land took place this past Monday, with Chief Leonard Crow Dog telling Wesley Clark Jr., "We do not own the land. The land owns us."

tru2u design on Etsy is giving 25% of profits to Amnesty International

Without a word, but a sign, people can show solidarity. The Safety Pin Solidarity Movement began a few months ago, following the U.K's vote to leave the European Union. Since then, violent acts against immigrants and people of color have risen. British people spread the tradition of wearing safety pins on their coats or sweaters to publicly signify that they are "safe" people who will support anyone being marginalized. I loved the idea, and to make my symbol stand out, I bought my own colorful safety pins on Amazon Prime (of course, given the 'Old Friends' commerical.) However, artistic safety pin jewelry is popping up everywhere, including in wonderful jewelry form from Etsy artists such as  tru2u jewelry, sometimes with some portion of proceeds going to a human rights organization.

The last thing bringing me hope is the sun. Autumn really has not ended in Maryland. The weather is warm,  the crimson maples are holding their leaves, and the earth is still soft enough for planting. So I finally got down to business. I never get around to planting bulbs in the fall, but since Thanksgiving, I've planted 100 daffodils, 100 Narcissus Thalia, and 100  muscari latifolium. No matter what happens this winter, I'm sure I'll see some flowers in the spring. The cycle of nature is the strongest proof that hope has a reward.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Every Vote Counted

Annamaria on Monday*
*Inspired once again by the ever fabulous RadioLab

Since the USA is in the grip of recounting the last presidential election ballots, I figured we should look into how important is each vote.

Every singe vote counts, right?

Well, if you research elections won by one vote, you are likely to get this list:

               In 1645, one vote gave Oliver Cromwell control of England.
            In 1649, one vote caused Charles I of England to be executed.
            In 1776, one vote gave America the English language instead of German.
            In 1845, one vote brought Texas into the Union.
            In 1875, one vote changed France from a monarchy to a republic.
            In 1923, one vote gave Adolf Hitler leadership of the Nazi Party.
             In 1941, one vote saved Selective Service - just weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked

Amazing, huh?  Except that every item on it is totally wrong!  None of these is at all correct.  In fact, in that 1923 election, only one person voted against Hitler.  The other five hundred and some party members all voted for the badest man in history.

The only conclusion any researchers have come to on this subject is that the odds of any election being decided by one vote are pretty close to nil.  In terms of a US presidential election, the odds of the outcome being decided by a single vote is 1 in 10 million.

Despite the unlikely odds, the right to vote is prized, as it should be.  Ask anyone who lives in a country where the right does not exist.  Democracies, if they are true to the rights of their citizens, hold the process of voting to be sacred in the civic sense.

Take India, the largest democracy in the world, for example.  It has 800 million voters.  Yet India runs its elections on the principle that no one in the country should be more than two kilometers (e.g. within walking distance) of the nearest polling place.

This applies even to a hermit priest, the only permanent resident living deep in the Gir Forest.   For every election, a team braves wild lions to bring in equipment and set up a poling place so this guy can cast his ballot.


If you don’t believe this, you can watch one of several YouTube videos on the subject here.

In a study of 16,577 US elections, two researchers found only one that was decided by one vote.  This took place in 1910 in the 36th Congressional District of New York, an entity that has since been gerrymandered out of existence.  But 106 years ago, the Democrat Charles B. Smith won by 20,685 votes while his opponent garnered only 20, 684.   Looking deeper into US history, I found eight local elections won by one vote.  Recounts found a few of them won by wider margins—two or three votes instead of one.  In one case the recount proved that the vote was a tie!

Charles B. Smith, D, NY

In actuality, of course, in any election, everybody’s vote counts.  If any two of Charlie B. Smith’s constituents had decided it was not worth going out to vote and stayed home, Charlie would have lost.  One's candidate winning depends on her or his supporters going to the polls.  If too many stay home, their candidate loses the whole shebang.

For us in the US, one frustrating thing about presidential elections is the existence of the Electoral College, which results in candidates having to battle state by state.  Until this year, only four times in history has the Electoral College vote disagreed with the overall popular vote: 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000.  The last of these is one that I and many of my fellow citizens still dispute.  It was the Supreme Court, not the people, that had the final say.

As of now Hillary Clinton is ahead in the popular vote by more than 2.5 million.  It does not seem right that PrezOrange is taking office.

So why do we have an Electoral College?  Strange to say these days, the framers of our Constitution interposed it between the presidency and the popular vote because they feared an angry or ignorant citizenry would elect a tyrant instead of a statesman.   Also, when trying to get Thirteen Original Colonies united into a nation,  they needed to give the smaller, less populous states a break so they wouldn’t balk.

Lately, there has arisen a plausible effort to settle elections in a way that the Electoral College and popular vote would never again disagree.  Changing the US Constitution through amendment seems out of reach.  But there is another way to the same end.  It is called the National PopularVote Interstate Compact.  Right now 48 of our 50 states award all their electoral votes to the winner within the state.  This effort seeks to get states to change this rule and award all their electoral votes to the candidate who wins the nation-wide popular vote.  As soon as enough states (totaling 270 electoral votes) adopt this rule, never again will there be a discrepancy between the two.  Simple and clean!

As of now, the following states have already adopted it: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. They comprise 165 electoral votes.  (The yellow states have legislation pending.  I hope they don't chicken out.)   As for me, I hope this change happens.