Saturday, March 24, 2007

Baby Einstein

If you don't have children you'll be unaware of the phenomenon of Baby Einstein. So, let me fill you in. Baby Einstein is the biggest, most annoyingly simple money making scheme in the world outside of all those US companies who grow fat over "reconstructing" stuff that the US government bombs.

It works like this: some genius in San Francisco or somewhere had this idea that parents want their kids to be exposed to culture and all that stuff, while also being taken out of their hands for a while. Additionally that research was published some time ago suggesting that babies (and foetuses) who listen to Mozart will be vastly more intelligent than ones who listen to heavy metal or boy bands or something. So, they came up with the baby Einstein videos. In these videos music is played (we have the "Baby Beethoven" one), while on screen there are pictures of toys. And, in a nutshell, that's it. And, get this, they don't even pay for the toys - at the end of the video (which only lasts half an hour for your 15 quid or whatever they cost) there is a list of toyshops which supplied the toys.

So their business plan went something like this -
1. Get toyshops to give us a bunch of toys,
2. film them in action,
3. put the film to Beethoven's music (obviously out of copyright),
4. produce vast quantities of DVDs,
5. charge inflated prices for them
6. sell them to middle class parents

More or less no overheads, and a huge profit margin. It's brilliant. Really, I am always simultaneously irritated and impressed by people who come up with some incredibly simple idea through which they can make vast amounts of money. Bastards.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ice, Sun, and Shopping

We won! When I say "we" of course, I mean Sport Club Miercurea Ciuc, who finally triumphed in the Romanian ice hockey championship last Friday, winning the final best-of-seven-game playoffs against perennial rivals Steaua Bucharest 4-1. The town is buzzing with excitement, or to be more accurate, there is a faint barely detectable low grade hum, which those attuned to the usual lack of excitement in Csikszereda can just about pick up. It's been a very good season for the team - they also won the Romanian cup, and finished third in their first season in the Hungarian league (I don't know if that makes them the third best team in Hungary - since they're obviously not in Hungary - but that's by-the-by)

Apologies for my lack of posts of late - I have been extremely busy seemingly juggling about 5 balls, and it doesn't promise to get any less busy any time soon. Last week, I was supposed to be in Tashkent, for example, but it got called off at the last minute for unspecified political reasons (quite possibly related to the very recent publication of this book in paperback), and instead I was whisked off to London. A city which I imagine looks much like Tashkent. It was a sunny week and I (as I do when it's sunny in London) was thinking how much I like the city. Of course, it's normally grey and miserable and that's the problem with the place. Still, maybe global warming will solve all that and it will become the Rome de nos jours. Except it would be a Rome in which every other building housed a sandwich shop.

One thing I did find myself moved to comment upon while there was shopping. Now it has come to my attention that shopping has become a leisure pursuit of sorts, a hobby, if you will. Why? What possible pleasure is there to be had in wandering through crowded shops desperately trying to find the one or two things you know you want, with thousands of other harried people, getting in each others way, surrounded by unhelpful shop assistants, people who stop at the moment they get off the escalator, bright neon lighting, and general rampant materialism? It's baffling to me. I mean truly baffling. There are few things I really can't get a handle on, and the enjoyment of shopping is one of them. And I was doing it in the cathedral of English shopping, Oxford Street. Browsing in a small out of the way second hand book shop or record shop, I can understand. Looking for specific items in the heart of London, I cannot.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Autonomy 2

I did promise some time ago to do a series of pieces about the movement for Székely autonomy, and suggested that my review of Alina Pippidi’s article about Transylvania would be a good first step (she never wrote back to me by the way, in case you were all waiting for me to publish her response)

Anyway, just to set the scene for those unaware of what is going on, the region in which I live – Székelyföld in Hungarian, Szekler Land in English, Ţinutul Secuiesc in Romanian – is angling for some form of autonomy. Now, I have to confess that at this point it gets a little bit confusing to me. What is being requested is referred to as “Cultural Autonomy” and not “Territorial Autonomy”. The latter is discounted mostly because there are obviously Romanians living in this region too, and the quickest way to get anyone’s back up is to call for territorial autonomy. But that means what is being sought is something which I can’t quite get my head around – this mysterious cultural autonomy. To me, cultural autonomy already exists (as it does in every non-dictatorship) – the Székely are free to speak their own language, print their own newspapers, pursue their own traditions and culture, and receive an education in their native tongue. So it’s unclear to me what cultural autonomy means.

Which brings us back to some form of territorially based autonomy. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a change in the status of the region?

Firstly, the idea of giving the regions of Romania more autonomy is something I strongly believe in. Romania is extremely centralised and more regional autonomy would make the local political leaders more accountable, would mean actions could better address the needs of local populations and ultimately would make the country more democratic. This doesn’t of course mean that things would be better, but at least shit decisions would be more locally accountable.

Recently, the Romanian president made some comment to the effect that Székelyföld would have autonomy when Caracal (a region somewhere in the south) had autonomy. This was taken by many to mean that the Székely could stick their autonomy where the sun doesn’t shine but could also be read as him knowing that the writing was on the wall for the over-centralised Romanian state and making it clear that he knew that the way forward was much more regional autonomy. It may even be that the EU are pressing Romania to be more regionally based, and that this will happen sooner rather than later. Hence, there will be greater regional autonomy, but it will happen on a countrywide basis rather than just granting autonomy to one particular region.

The question then is not whether there should be regional autonomy, but when it will happen and, crucially, on what basis the new regions will be formed. This is why the question is important now, because it is almost certainly the case that it is now that the decisions to devolve power to as-yet-unformed regions is being taken – and if the Székely want to benefit from this change they will need to put across a strong case for one of the regions being Székelyföld (and I’m quite sure that the Romanian government will be looking to create regions that neutralize or dilute Székely autonomy). Already I’ve heard on the grapevine that the new regions are liable to be formed of three counties each, and that Harghita and Covasna would be connected to Brasov rather than Mures county. That would (I imagine) ensure a Romanian majority in the new region, and finish any moves for an autonomous Székelyföld. I have no idea whether this is indeed likely or whether it’s just rumour and hearsay. [It ought to be noted that the current counties themselves were created under Ceausescu and were designed to break up the historical regions and dilute ethnic identity – or so Hungarian Romanians tell me, at any rate. I can’t say whether this is valid or not]

So, the next piece in this series will be on whether it would be a good idea for Székelyföld to be one of the new regions in a more federal Romania. A subject which I have decidedly mixed feelings about.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Pictures from Kathmandu

A slideshow of some selected pictures from Kathmandu can be seen here, in case you're interested.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Yak yak yak

Random thoughts on Nepal

The first afternoon I was there, I wandered jetlagged and exhausted through the city, in that sort of semi-dreamlike way you do when you’ve had no sleep. It may have been good, in some ways, that I did, since the all out assault on your senses of downtown Kathmandu may have been easier to cope with what with those senses being so dulled. It’s something of a manic place, which seemingly gets increasingly frenzied the closer you get to the middle of it. By the time I reached Durbur Square, the heart of the city, I was being constantly assaulted by monks wishing to bless me (for money), small boys begging, men attempting to sell me hash, shopkeepers shouting out to come and look at their wares, blokes wishing to guide me, and still others just wanting to have a conversation. All while attempting to avoid the crazy motorbike /rickshaw /taxi /bicycle traffic weaving in and out of each other on the narrow and crowded streets, and beeping incessantly. Buddhist chanting humming in the background, pigeons ducking and diving, and the heavy smell of incense all add to the sensory overload. All this and when I got to the square there was a Maoist rally going on, with red-bandanna-ed cadres of people chanting and raising their fists in support of the angry invective of the speaker. Just off that square I stepped into a quiet courtyard, with a group of Chinese tourists (wonder what they made of the Maoists) looking up at a wooden window, at which emerged a young girl – the Kumari, Nepal’s very own living goddess.

The political situation is bizarre, and not what one would describe as stable – a government that includes Maoists, while the country is still a monarchy. Mind you I didn’t meet a single person who actually liked the king, and in a couple of cases the most mild-mannered, sweetest people opined quietly but vehemently that he was “a bastard”. This in a country where English is used in such a way as to be as roundabout as possible (see below).

At this propitious juncture, having mused to myself self-consciously and devotedly for some hefty and generous epoch, as the clock hand ticked its way unceasingly and perpetually around the dial, I have resolved, decisively, to humbly offer up to you, kind reader, this finely crafted sentence by way of a light hearted spoof and benign lampooning of “Nenglish” the locally enhanced rendering of my own dear mother tongue.

One of the other features of Nenglish, Nepali English, is the use of English words in odd ways. The front page of the Nepali Times for example, seemed to have a daily report on some deadly road crash, which was unfailingly referred to as a “mishap”. The day before I left, for example, a mishap had killed 15 people in the south of the country. The other interesting one while we were there was the daily practice of “load shedding”. The hotel was filled with warnings about “load shedding” and how various facilities would not always be available because of it. Load shedding, it turned out, was the phrase used for the daily scheduled power outages that rolled throughout the capital. Never have I heard such an excellent euphemism – the power is not being cut because the economy is fucked, you understand, but because we are somehow unburdening the system of its unnecessary charge, or something like that. Inspired.

We were working with members of the Nepali English Teacher’s Association, who were a fantastic bunch of blokes (in nearly 20 years of working the English teaching “industry”, I have never before met a group of practitioners who were all male). On the first day, I asked some of them how far from Kathmandu they lived. One responded “Not far. It’s just a three hour bus ride and then a 5 hour walk” (at which point one of his fellow participants snorted and said “5 hours for him. It would take me about 18”). Another said “Oh very close. About 100km by road and then a 24 hour walk”. What I’m getting at here is that much of the country is pretty remote. It’s also fairly traditional in many ways (In the context of Nepal, Maoism actually seems a pretty futuristic political ideology). You may remember 6 years ago when the entire royal family were massacred in their home, ostensibly by the drunken crown prince who then turned the gun on himself. I’ve been reading a little about that incident and the whole background to it hangs on various family feuds stretching back about 300 years. It’s like the play Shakespeare wrote but shelved because he thought it would be a bit far-fetched. [I use the word ostensibly above, because it’s really not that clear that the official story is that accurate, and any number of more-or-less believable conspiracy theories abound – a number of which point the finger at the new king – the brother of the murdered one].

The last, and only free, day of my trip was on Wednesday. Obviously I was looking forward to doing all the touristy things I had been unable to do on other days. However, I learned on Monday evening that this would not be as easy as I had hoped as a bandh had been organised. A bandh is a kind of general strike with added features – everything shuts down, traffic is stopped, demonstrations happen, and there is often accompanying violence directed at anyone seen not obeying the bandh. This obviously meant that the chance of doing things like shopping for presents would be somewhat curtailed, for example. Even getting to the airport might present a tricky problem. As it happened, it turned out to not be half as bad as it had been painted, and for a few hours in the afternoon it was actually quite nice to be able to wander around the streets without being mown down by weaving honking vehicles.

All in all, I had a good time. A lot of work, but Kathmandu was fascinating, and very different from anywhere I'd been before. I even managed to have the traditional tourist experience of getting a severe case of the runs. I bet you're glad you know that aren't you? One of the things I mused upon while spending more time than usual in the bathroom was whether there was a blog somewhere out there on which someone just documented his bowel movements. Please don't take that as a prompt to link to one.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Top of the World, Ma

Yesterday morning I flew (or, more accurately, was flown) in a small plane along the Himalayan range from Kathmandu to Everest, a truly spectacular trip.

Unfortunately, the top of Everest was shrouded in clouds, but just as I was having my turn in the cockpit being shown the view by the pilot, the clouds gently parted, revealing the world's highest point. Right there in front of my eyes. It was, well, momentous. I'm not sure I can put it into words quite how exhilarating it was. Actually, I am sure that I can't.

However, for what it's worth, here is a picture that I managed to get just in that 15 second window that I had before the clouds rolled back in again. The summit is that peak you can see just to the left of centre (click on the pic to expand it a bit).

(And yes, I am aware that the way the clouds lie makes it look like there might be a higher peak just to the right, but they are deceptive. That slightly hidden bit is the peak of Lhotse. You can see what it looks like without the clouds here.)

Anyway, back in Europe now (albeit only just - am currently in Istanbul airport) and will possibly be able to relate stories of Nepal very shortly)