Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Something is happening in the State of Belgium

Belgium is known for its chocolates and waffles. Apart from that, it’s one of the least known countries in Europe.
OK, some art lovers might know that Van Eyck and P.P. Rubens hailed from what is now Belgium, but the little country squeezed between France and The Netherlands doesn’t exactly have a global image.
Since its creation and split from its northern neighbor, it has been divided between the Flemish (Dutch) speaking north and the French speaking south.
The Belgians are often the victim of jokes, but it’s rare that they are the ones creating a hoax.
But that is what happened.

December 2006, the national broadcasting company in French, RTBF , broke into regular programming with an urgent bulletin:
"Flemish parliament has unilaterally declared the independence of Flanders (the Dutch speaking part of Belgium)” and that King Albert and Queen Paola had left on the first air force plane available.
Grainy pictures from the military airport showed dark silhouettes of a royal entourage boarding a plane, possibly on their way to the Congo.
RTBF then aired an interview with secessionist MP Jean-Marie Dedecker, who proudly declared: "At last my dream has been realised".

The broadcast showed 50 or so jubilant demonstrators waving the yellow-and-black flag with the Flemish Lion outside the legislature.
A small crowd of monarchists rallied outside the royal palace waving the Belgian flag.

Only after a half hour did the station flash the message: "This is fiction."
Fadila Laanan, the Walloon media minister was the one who forced the station to run the disclaimer. Too little, too late.
Not only Belgians fell for the hoax, worried ambassadors asked what they had to tell their capitals.
As with Orson Wells famous “The War of the Worlds”, it took some time before people realized it was a hoax.

The program makers defended the hoax, stating that they wanted to spark a debate about the risk of Flanders' secession and the possible collapse of the country.
RTBF's news chief, Yves Thiran, told the BBC that the program was meant as a wake-up call: "Our intention was to show Belgian viewers the intensity of the issue of the future of Belgium and the real possibility of Belgium no longer being a country in a few months. We obviously scared many people - maybe more than we expected."

Not everyone saw it that way - Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt slammed the show, adding that it would only serve to increase tensions between Dutch-speakers in Flanders and French-speakers in Wallonia.
"It is very bad Orson Welles, in very poor taste," remarked his spokesman.
"In the current context, it is irresponsible for a public television channel to announce the end of Belgium as a reality presented by genuine journalists."

The good news: it brought Belgium to attention of the world and we don't have to memorize two new country names and capitals.

The bad news, mapmakers, text book writers, graphic studios, diplomats and last but not least Belgian royals loose out on new job opportunities!

Quel dommage! Wat een pech!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Humor as a weapon of mass exposure – the Borat success story

Sacha Baron Cohen is a brilliant Cambridge University-educated British comedian who is able to amuse most of us while irritating an entire nation.
You see, Cohen’s alter ego is Borat Sagdiyev, a television news reporter making a meager living in the struggling country of Kazakhstan.

In his brilliant parodies, “Borat” tells the world about his beautiful home country of Kazakhstan (a urine-drinking, Jew-hating, inbred society).
He is wonderfully political incorrect and gets away with it.
In the process, he exposes the hypocrisy of many.
No subject is safe - sexual orientation, religion,'s all fair game.

In one skit, Cohen pokes fun at conspiracy theories by stating as Borat that “when in America he travels by car just in case the Jews repeat their attack of 9/11.”

To satirize homophobia, Borat asked an anthropologist: "Are you a homo sapiens? Because it doesn't matter if you are."

At a feminist gathering, Borat was political incorrect and misogynic by "innocently" extolling the virtues of Baywatch.

The branding of the Borat character is brilliant – just check out the Borat website and notice the misspelling, MySpace mentioning, and photo album.

Needless to say, the people of Kazakhstan were not amused.
The tourist department even shut down Cohen's website.
(It was immediately redirected to

To boost their national image, the Kazakh government took out a pricey four-page full-color ad in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune today.
The special four-page insert entitled "Kazakhstan in the 21st Century" features a photo of the country's president Nursultan Nazarbayev on its front page shaking hands with President George W. Bush.
This piece of crisis management didn’t come cheaply – such ads are around $300,000 - $400,000 - Kazakhstan's per capita income was approximately $8,000….

To boost its image, Kazakhstan submitted its $50m tribal epic movie called Nomad, co-directed by Sergei Bodrov, Talgat Temenov and Ivan Passer, for the Oscar 2007 nominations.

Unfortunately for the poor Kazakhs, Barat beat them to it.
His movie “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” hit the theaters in November 2006 and already won raves from critics and fans alike.
The movie tells the story of our favorite Kazakh reporter, traveling from his dirt-poor, Kazakh village of Kuzcek (“3 mile north of fence to Jewtown”) to New York on behalf of the Ministry of Tourism.
He must observe the western way of life and report back with any information that could benefit his native land.
The plan is to stick with the culture of New York, but soon after Borat learns to use the television remote control he is compelled to take his journey to the west coast.
Seduced by "Baywatch" and learning of his Kazakh wife's death (via telegram) in a very short span, Borat makes his new mission to woo and marry buxom Hollywood starlet Pamela Anderson.

In the movie, Borat attacks many groups and subcultures as a bumbling foreigner and gains the trust of his interviewees.
Through his native questions, he cleverly coaxes brutally honest responses out of his interviewees, who are only too happy to tell him what they really think.
It’s not a pretty picture – one old rodeo guy would like “us to take care of gays here as they do in Muslim countries”.
It also shows how the Western ideal of freedom of speech can cause a global controversy.

Staying non-stop in character, Cohen wowed the crowds at the London premiere of his movie by stating:
"I have come here with Bilak, my 11 year old son, his wife and their child, and we are hoping maybe to put some chocolate make-up on the child's face and sell him to Madonna.
I am hoping that Madonna will be a very good father for it."

Cohen also unwittingly exposed the BBC as biased towards religion and politics.
In an exercise to check the attitude of its executive staff, the BBC presented its executives with the following scenario.
Suppose Sasha Baron Cohen participates in a BBC program studio program titled ‘Room 101’, where guests are asked for their opinions on different issues, and are allowed to symbolically throw things they hated in a garbage bin.
What would you, as our BBC executive do if Cohen decided to throw ‘Kosher food’, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bible, and the Koran in the garbage bin?

Not surprisingly, the BBC executives said they would allow everything to be thrown in the garbage bin, save the Koran, for "fear of offending the British Muslim community."
Enough said….

Monday, August 28, 2006

Going Plutonic

I love SF, which is a Good Thing, since I work in high tech (the science part) and my salary is fiction.
But even for Trekkies, the downgrading of Pluto is weird, really weird.
Poor Pluto was discovered in 1930 by 24-year-old American astronomer at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, Clyde Tombaugh.
The Naming Game soon started.
It was 11-year-old Venetia Burney, from Oxford, England, who suggested the name.
It was chosen from a long list that included Atlas, Apollo, Zeus, Minerva and even Bacchus. Needless to say, reporters of the New York Times pitched Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and intoxication.
I blame the International Astronomical Union, which had nothing better to do than shaking up our solar system.
They redefined “planet” as:
"a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit".
It seems that poor Pluto wobbles a bit and was therefore stripped of its planet status and demoted to a wannebee or “dwarf” planet.
I haven’t got a clue what that means – can Pluto grow up and become a proper planet?
I am also not sure what will happen to Pluto’s moon Charon. Will it become Ice Cube?
So our Pluto is out of the cosmic planet club, and globetrotting Luciano Pavarotti is in.
Good thing his family name starts with a P as well – makes us all less p-d off.

After 76 years, Pluto stepped down as a planet. Let’s hope that British Bess gets the hint and does the same for her son Charles.

Needless to say, people (I am referring to us Terrans, since I have no clue how the Martians are taking it. If the movie “Mars Attacks!” is anything to go by, not kindly, methinks) are not happy.

But the stripping of Pluto of its planet status launched a merchandise wave that would do credit to any presidential campaign.
Scores of Web-savvy entrepreneurs went on the Internet, selling Pluto memorabilia from T-shirts and mugs to bumper stickers and mouse pads.
Within 24 hours of the “bad” news, a wave of Pluto items appeared on, (a San Francisco-area Internet company that prints T-shirts and other merchandise), including 200 designs on more than 1,500 products.
Many items and slogans related to Pluto's demotion and advocated its return with T-shirts proclaiming "Save Pluto" and "Stop Planetary Discrimination."

What the eggheads of the IAU didn’t understand, is that we ordinary people were quite happy with the nine planets we knew.
Let’s face it – does the downgrade bring us any benefits? Tax cuts, world peace, cure for AIDS? I don’t think so!
Au contraire, we now have to memorize one planet less and a few candidate planets more (including one called Xena, that unfortunately doesn’t have anything to do with the Warrior Princess).

To quote Dr. Hiroshi Kyosuke of the University of Tokyo:
"It seems counterintuitive to me that we should say Pluto is no longer a planet, yet Donald Rumsfeld is still Secretary of Defense. After all, Pluto has done no harm."

Hear, hear!
Pluto the dog, who made his debut in 1930, couldn’t agree more.
According to Disney insiders, he worries about the fate of this namesake and all the textbooks that must be rewritten.

Personally, I think that we can do a better job of classifying and naming planets than those spaced-out cosmos cowboys.

MercuryMini-me, since it’s small and fairly close to Earth.

VenusViagra, and let the pharmaceutical industry sponsor this hard rock.

Earth – Ego, since that’s what we have, in abundance.

Mars – Mars, since too many Mars movies have been made and we don’t want to upset our green neighbors, so we?

JupiterJuniper, since this berry gave us far more pleasure in the form of gin than this huge planet ever did.

Saturnus Ringtone, if you wonder why, just have a look at its shape – Nokia can be a sponsor (“connecting aliens”)

Uranus U2, for the mispronunciation by English speaking pubertal adolescents alone.
Great sponsoring opportunity for Bono as well.

Neptune – Loonytune, since only a loony could have named a gas ball after the god of oceans and seas.

Pluto – Exepluto, since it’s exit for the poor thing and it sounds like a really cool computer program (that is, as long as it’s not a Microsoft product).

For know, Pluto did one thing, that many of its fellow planets were not able to do – to get more coverage than the Klingon planets!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Gibson Disaster

Last Friday, Mel Gibson was arrested in the early hours for speeding along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, the famous beach town North of Los Angeles.
Well, happens to best of us, you might think.
(Although most of us don’t drive around in a Lexus).

The arresting officer told the drunken actor that he was supposed to cuff him but would not, as long as Gibson cooperated.
Fair enough, I would think. But what does our thespian do?
He informed the deputy: “I'm not going to get in your car," and promptly bolted.
Our law enforcement officer quickly subdued Gibson, cuffed him and put him inside the patrol car.
Up till now, nothing special.
Instead of keeping his mouth shut, Australia’s import starting acting out once he was inside the police car.
"You mother f****r. I'm going to f*** you," he informed the astounded policeman.
After these crude words, Gibson then launched into a barrage of anti-Semitic statements: "F*****g Jews... The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world." Gibson then asked the deputy, "Are you a Jew?"
(The police officer wisely didn't respond).

When this Gibson Monologue escalated, the arresting officer called ahead for a sergeant to meet them as soon as they would arrive at the station.
Upon arrival, a sergeant began videotaping Gibson, who noticed the camera and then said, "What the f*** do you think you're doing?"
Gibson then noticed a female sergeant and yelled, "What do you think you're looking at, sugar tits?"
(If you are interested, you can download the report from the entertainment website

The next day, after spending the night in a detox cell and posting a $5,000 bail, Mel G. apologized o for driving while drunk and for his "belligerent behavior" towards the deputy sheriffs who arrested him.
Mmmm, doesn’t sound like a sincere apology to me.
I also miss the reference to his anti-Semitic remarks.
Not that I am surprised, mind you.
For one, Gibson is a staunch Catholic (nothing wrong there), who shares many beliefs of the Traditionalist Catholic movement.
This sect rejects some or all reforms started by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
It’s quite funny that he became so successful in hedonist Hollywood.
That must explain the private chapel Mel built.
The Holy Family Catholic Church is run out of Gibson's Icon Production company offices, with an Icon employee responsible for keeping the church's books and Gibson and his wife Robyn as director. The Gibsons donate money (tax free, of course!) of via the AP Reilly Foundation, a charity they established for the sole purpose of creating the church.
Pennywise, but definitely not Pound-foolish!

Mel’s father, Hutton Gibson, has repeated claimed that the Holocaust was exaggerated. According to Gibson Père, Jews are out to create "one world religion and one world government" and outlined a conspiracy theory involving Jewish bankers, the US Federal Reserve and the Vatican, among others.
Oy vey!

To come back to the current peccadilloes of M.G., the media (including the New York Times and Fox) jumped on the story, not in the least due to the current wars raging in the Middle East.
Thanks to the worldwide web, the story spread like wildfire.
As the New York Times correctly pointed out, in a little over 24 hours, Mr. Gibson’s arrest and subsequent behavior in Malibu had already prompted talk of a claimed cover-up, an exposé, worldwide news coverage, an apology and then a full-blown push for alcohol rehabilitation, even as his representatives and executives at the Walt Disney Company rushed to catch up with the event’s effect on the filmmaker’s movie and television projects with the company.

The fallout was instantly: on Monday, Hope Hartman, a spokeswoman for Disney’s ABC television network, said the company was dropping its plans to produce a Holocaust-themed miniseries in collaboration with Mr. Gibson.

Needless to say, this is a huge relief - I think all of us can do without this "treat".
To quote Rabbi Marvin Hier, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center:
I don’t think he should be doing a film on the Holocaust. It would be like asking someone associated with the K.K.K. to do a movie on the African-American experience.”

There is an expression: “in vino veritas” – therefore, one remark our Mel (who promptly checked into rehab) made, hits home: “My life is f****d.”

And if you look at his photo, you see an uncanny resemblance to another notorious anti-Semite…

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Case of the Cursing Parrot

We all read stories or watched pirate movies with cursing parrots perched on the shoulder of a mean, one-legged sailor.
Well, such a bird is currently making headlines.
The Bird (name unknown) has the habit of screaming phrases such as “maniac”, “homo” and “son of a bitch” at regular intervals.
The bird belonged to an orthodox Jew, who bought it as a pet for his kids.
Needless to say, he was not too happy by the verbal outbursts of the creature.
I am still puzzled that he didn’t find that characteristic out before he purchased the bird, but who am I?
Anyway, the pater familias went to the rabbi to find out how to handle the feathery culprit.
The rabbi informed him that the parrot should be slaughtered since he “sins and causes others to sin.”
Personally, I thought that you only sinned if you purposely commit an act that is sinful, but obviously, I am wrong (being a woman and not orthodox probably accounts for that).
The family father is a patient of a holistic doctor who decided to come to the bird’s rescue.
No good deed goes unpunished, so the good doctor had to fork over $ 3,000 to save it from death row.
The doctor was now stuck with a bird that has quite a mouth on it.
So how did our medical professional handle the situation? Yep, you guessed it – he consulted a rabbi!
The second rabbi recommended that the poor parrot either be put to death or have his tongue severed, which brings back images of mediaeval witch trials, doesn’t it?.

The story hit the headlines and all kinds of organizations and individuals came to the bird’s defense; some of them even protested in front of the doctor’s house.
The “Let Animals Live Foundation” took it a step further and applied to the court to prevent the pending execution (or tongue mutilation).
In its petition, the Foundation stated that there is a reasonable basis to assume the parrot will be subjected to suffering and cruelty.
Therefore, the court must interfere with a restraining order.
The ruling judge agreed and issued an injunction protecting the parrot from being harmed in any way.
For now, our feathered friend is safe.
The order will apply until a further decision is made.
In the next few days, a deliberation will be held and the court will seal the parrot’s fate.
Our good doctor is planning to attend the court session accompanied by the parrot in question.

Let’s hope our bird friend will not engage in foul language in court – that’s the prerogative of lawyers!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Vive the Eurovision Song Contest!

If you want to know what makes Europe tick, watch the annual Eurovision Song Contest.
Way before reality shows, Europe already enjoyed its own version with this music event.
Since 1956, it’s one of the major European events –aimed at bringing different European cultures together.

Participants use it as their jumping board to international fame and fortune.
Apart from Abba, no one has been successful.
To represent a country, you can be a non-citizen (not unlike players in major league soccer) or even (gasp!) American, but the country itself must be a member of the European Broadcasting Union.

In short, all European countries (and Israel) join in the festivities.
In the Cold War days, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, Western European singers had to sing in their native tongue.
Needless to say, Anglos won a lot more times than singers belting out ballads in Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Dutch, or Hebrew.
A few years ago, they changed the rules and everybody can sing in English. Hurray!

The fun part is not the singing, but the voting. You see, if you want a crash course in European history, politics, and sensibilities – The Eurovision is the show to watch!
Germany, for obvious reasons, would end up with nil points, Portugal would give 12 points to Spain, and vice versa, the Benelux countries would vote for one another as would the Scandinavian countries.
Once the Central and Eastern European countries could join, there was an additional problem.
Too many countries – the live show would take forever! Since the whole shindig has to be over in 3 hours, they limited the contestants to 24.

Last Saturday, the 51st Festival took place.
And what a party it was, broadcasted on television, radio and Internet.
Greece was the host this year.
You see, once you win the contest, the country you represent is punished by having to host the next one.
The Greeks were happy though; they could reuse the Olympic facilities they built for the 2004 games.

The best channel to watch the event on is the BBC – its presenter Terry Wogan (who is an old hand at it) is wickedly funny and very non-PC.
One of his best remarks was “don’t mention the marbles

(European History Lesson #1:
The Brits took/stole/moved the Elgin Marbles out of Greece during an archeological dig at the beginning of the 19th century and have been refusing to give them back ever since.
Even movie star and Minister of Culture Melina Mercouri unsuccessfully tried to convince the lime users that they should be a good sport and return them pronto).

I will give you my impressions – feel free to blog your reactions (do not send hate mail; the cat will eat it and throw up).

The concept is simple: song, commercial about the hosting country, another song etc. (24x in total).
After this feast for the eyes and ears, residents of each member country can “televote” for their favorite.
Points are awarded from 1 to 6 (nobody pays attention to those) and then jump to 8, 10 and 12 points. Votes are announced by a local celebrity, who takes the opportunity to promote him/herself or his/her country, showing off their language skills in the process.
The winner performs the winning song again and gets stink drunk.
(European History Lesson #2).

The Greek presenters were a young, goodlooking couple bearing an uncanny resemblance to the main characters of Will & Grace.
The female half had the annoying habit of calling everything and everyone “amazing” so I guess her name is Amazing Maria.

Overall, it seems that the Greeks told people to wear white or get lost.
More than half of the outfits were in different shades of white. Considering that the settings and lightning were gorgeous, not such a bad concept.
Between the songs were small commercials of the Greek Tourist Board.
You know what I mean – blue sea, happy people, food, drink, you name it.
Each commercial started with a gorgeous girl with long wavy hair and some blue fabric in the background floating in the wind. It looked so much like a fabric softener commercial that I promptly remembered to turn on my washing machine.

One of the first songs was performed by a Britney Spears clone from Moldova.
Sparsely clad, she chanted “moca, rocka, choca” several times. Oh what a blessing that she could perform in English!

Spain tried to cash in on “the Ketchup Song” success of 2002.
The four Ketchup sisters were dressed in red (what else?) and sitting in office chairs.
There were two amazing dancers performing some non-related modern ballet.
Their song (for reasons unclear to me) was called Bloody Mary.
I don’t know if it related to a) the drink or b) Queen Mary.

(European History Lesson #3: King Henry VIII’s elder daughter was a staunch Catholic who eliminated subjects with a different faith. Hence her nickname “Bloody Mary”)

Germany shocked the world with its version of a country & western song.
The lead songstress was dressed in a Barbie pink dress with feathers. She acted like a five-year old, despite pushing 30.

Well, if the Germans have country & western, we can bring back the twist.
At least, that is what the Danes must have thought.
Five Paris Hilton look-alikes were singing about the twist while a handsome guy twirled around break dancing. Go figure.
(no European History Lesson there!)

Favorite Russia sent a Ricky Martin/Robbie Williams look-alike.
Dressed as Marlon Brando in “A street car named desire”, he performed a song claled "never let her go" that sounded uncannily like a Ricky Martin song. Lawsuit, anyone?
For reasons unclear to me (State sponsoring may be?), he was surrounded by several graceful Swan lake ballerinas.
Half a ballerina was sticking out of a piano, which is a shameful waste of one gorgeous ballet dancer and one perfectly nice piano.

Macedonia decided to send a Fran Fine look-alike surrounded by your average MTV video dancers. Boooooooring!

Lithuania obviously had some management training or other.
Six business suits kept repeating: “we are the winners of Eurovision”.
(No such luck - Finland took the grand prize!)
It sounded like a soccer chant – including megaphone.

The United Kingdom was represented by what sounded like the cast of “Annie”.
The girls were dressed in skimpy schoolgirl uniforms –very passé as Tatu and Britney Spears can tell you.
The only redeeming feature was the excellent violin player in the background.

Host country Greece featured an Anastacia-look alike, nicely dressed in black pants and a designer variation of the famous peasant blouse.
She was one of the few that didn’t come with lots of gimmicks, background dancers and the like. For that alone she should have come in 2nd.

The most surprising entry was victorious Finland.
In a contest were the majority of the songs are copycats of MTV/VH1 successes (last year, it was one Latino song after the other), the Finns decided to go heavy metal.
The band, called Lordi, consisted of one singer, two guitarists, one keyboard player (the only chick) and one drummer, all of them dressed in full costumes and monster masks.
Think KISS going Klingon and you get the idea.
What can I say? It worked for me (being a hard rock and SF fan) and lots of voters as well.
The best part was when the lead singer unfolded his huge bat wings.
Wow, Worf would have been so jealous!
One of the guitarists imitated the tongue movements of Gene Simmons, with limited success.
The Greeks provided a fitting pop concert background, including fireworks.

Following the popular trend, the Ukraine also sent a Britney/Madonna copy in a tacky outfit and she was (guess what?) surrounded by dancing Cossacks (in red this time, and not white).

Ah, La Belle France….
Being it’s arrogant self, France stubbornly stuck to its mother tongue thus neatly ruining its chances.
Keeping in line with the Dress Code, the chanteuse was dressed in a white Grecian style frock, belting out a chanson (of course) accompanied by an excellent cellist. (He should hook up with the violinist of the Brits).

The Irish representative also went for a sentimental song.
The best feature was his resemblance to Colin Farrell, which was a nice change from all the Britney/Madonna/Anastacia clones.

Sweden tried to copy its Abba success of decades ago by sending a clone of the dark-haired female singer.
Even her outfit looked like it came out of the Abba wardrobe – gold overalls with a blue train that put the one on Princess Diana’s wedding dress to shame.
The poor dear looked like she was performing in a Fellini movie.

Turkey obliviously ran out of the most popular clone models and settled for a Donatella Versace look-alike.
At least she had the guts to sing in Turkish, which earned her 12 points from several countries (more about that later).

No contest without an icon, so during the voting break, Amazing Maria and poster boy schlepped Nana Mouskouri on stage.
After telling everyone that there “are no losers, only winners” she left the stage without singing.
This was only fair, considering the quality of the performances.

After the 24 songs were performed, it was time for the 37 voting countries to cast their votes.
During this intermission, the Greeks put up a bewildering show that somehow should have represented Greek history throughout the ages, but consisted mainly of a colorful chicken dance against opera music.

Once the votes were in, the real fun started.
You see, it went like this:

  • The Russian Block, the Baltic Block and the Balkan States mainly voted for each other with the top votes (10 and 12) for Russia (you never know what will happen in the future!) and Finland (you never know if the Nokians will invade the Baltic).
  • The Nordic Countries voted for each other (Norway gave 12 points to Denmark; Iceland the same amount to Finland).
  • Portugal and Spain must having a tiff – they didn’t award any points to each other. Mmmm, something rotten in the Iberian Peninsula?
  • Ireland gave 12 point to the UK and vice versa. Surprise, surprise!
  • Malta and Cyprus gave top honors (and points) to host Greece.
  • Andorra didn’t want to rock the boat with its powerful neighbor and duly awarded 12 points to Spain.
    (European History Lesson # 4: don’t mess with your neighbors if you are a tax haven)
  • The Netherlands and Germany gave 12 points to Turkey thanks to the millions of Turkish immigrants in these countries.
  • Russia received 12 points from Israel, where there are 1M. Russian immigrants in a country with a total population of 6M.

The 37 jury representatives of the voting countries presented a nice sideshow on their own.
Why not grab your 5 minutes of fame when you can?
The Dutch guy, who gave “dressing down” a whole new meaning, was heavily hitting on the male Greek host. He even gave his mobile phone number on air, so I sincerely hope that the idiot was spammed with heaps of obnoxious sms messages.
Belarus had a Victoria Beckham look-alike (with glasses) announcing its results.
One of the countries that didn’t survive the semi-finals happily announced that it will be the winner next year. (That will speed the voting in 2007 up!)
But Macedonia stole the show: the jury guy started serenading Amazing Maria.
(European History Lesson #5: Not since since Alexander the Great did a Macedonian show so much goodwill towards Greece).

So you see, European history is fun! And it repeats itself, every year.

See you in May 2007!

Monday, May 15, 2006

A creative firebomb defense

We all know about lame excuses and creative defenses – some of them by culprits, some of them by (nitwit) lawyers.
But we have to give a lot of credit to Mr. Otis Cecil Wilkins and his defense counsel.
Mr. Wilkins threw a homemade bottle bomb at his ex-girlfriend when she driving her car into her yard in Rougemont, North Carolina.

The bomb exploded in “a large fireball” as eye witnesses described it.
He was promptly charged with attempted first-degree murder.
What defense can you come up with as a Public Defender?
Well, PD Lawrence Campbell cooked up the following.
The intended target was not the ex-girlfriend (or her car) but a beaver dam that blocked a waterway.
You might ask yourself how the beaver demolition unit went haywire.
Well, you see, the bomb was (unintentionally, I am sure) ignited by ash from Wilkins’ cigarette that fell onto the fuse that set off the bottle bomb.
(Do you want more proof that that smoking is a health hazard?)
In the end, Wilkins pleaded guilty to three assault counts (one for the ex-girlfriend and two for other people nearby, including her 3-year-old granddaughter) and was convicted to 300 days in jail.

If you think that Wilkins came off lightly, you are partially wrong.
You see, when he threw the bomb, it rolled back at him, igniting his shorts.
As a result, he spent more than a week at a hospital burn center.

What did Mr. Wilkins have to say in his defense?

“I ain't no terrorist, it was just a little bit of black powder. It was just a little boom thing.”
And an atom bomb is just a mushroom thing?

Monday, May 08, 2006

How Kaavya Viswanathan got clever, got caught and lost her reputation

Kaavya Viswanathan, in case you missed it, is a 19-year old Harvard University sophomore with an interesting notoriety.
You see, she penned a chick lit novel "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life". At the tender age of 17, she signed a 6-figure deal with her publisher Little, Brown and Co.
The novel was published and sales were moderate.

But then an observant reader (must be one that is an expert in chit lit) noticed some remarkable similarities with other novels, especially “Sloppy Firsts” and “Second Helpings” by Megan McCafferty, a Columbia alum.

After being informed by email of the striking similarities, McCafferty informed her publisher Random House.
They promptly sent a letter to the legal eagles at Little, Brown and Co.
McCafferty gracefully stated:
''After reading the book in question, and finding passages, characters, and plot points in common, I do hope this can be resolved in a manner that is fair to all of the parties involved. I am so grateful for the diligence and support of Random House's legal counsel."

Wow, that lady has a damn good PR firm!
It could have ended there, were it not for the enterprising David Zhou of the Harvard Crimson student newspaper.
He followed up, did some serious research, and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that whole passages of the Opal Mehta story were copied ad verbatim from other novels that were definitely not protected by Ms.Viswanathan’s copyright.

The enterprising Mr. Zhou published on the Harvard Crimson website that "Opal Mehta" also contained passages similar to Meg Cabot's popular novel, “The Princess Diaries”, published by HarperCollins in 2000.
To give you an idea, read the following description in Cabot’s novel:
"There isn't a single inch of me that hasn't been pinched, cut, filed, painted, sloughed, blown dry, or moisturized. ... Because I don't look a thing like Mia Thermopolis. Mia Thermopolis never had fingernails. Mia Thermopolis never had blond highlights."
Just compare this with the description from “Opal Mehta” on page 59:
"Every inch of me had been cut, filed, steamed, exfoliated, polished, painted, or moisturized. I didn't look a thing like Opal Mehta. Opal Mehta didn't own five pairs of shoes so expensive they could have been traded in for a small sailboat."

The New York Times took up the story as well and reported that parts of Viswanathan's novel had an uncanny resemblance to Sophie Kinsella's Can You Keep a Secret?”

Viswanathan is her defense claimed that the main character in McCafferty’s books, a smart NJ teen named Jessica Darling, “inspired” her to “internalize” prose.
Mmmm, isn’t that an elegant way of saying “ripping off”?
She appeared on NBC's Today Show and informed a skeptical Katie Couric that the similarities were “unintentional.”
As I was writing, I genuinely believed that every single word I was writing was my own,” she claimed.
All I can say is that, while reading Megan McCafferty's books, I just internalized her words. I never intended to take any of her words.”
Yeah, sure, that will hold up in court!

Ms. V’s publisher first contemplated to publish a revised edition of the novel, but later on decided to scrap it all together.
The lucrative book deal (half a Million for two books) was cancelled.
I bet their legal/PR team had a lot to do with that. (Crisis management, anyone?)

Ms. Viswanathan is smart cookie, so why did she go through all this trouble to rip off others?
My guess is that the answer lies in the way she marketed her novel.
She hooked up with a “book packaging company” called Alloy Entertainment (formally known as 17th Street Productions).
They share copyright with the enterprising Viswanathan.
Book packagers or book producers act as liaisons between publishing houses and everyone who works to put together a book--authors, artists, editors, photographers, researchers, indexers, and sometimes even printers.
Alloy helped Viswanathan to make her work more commercially viable and helped her to “flesh out the concept.” How far did the co-writing go?
Alloy specializes in “teen glam” fiction – may be some overeager staffers did a bit of cut and paste?

Viswanathan’s past writings are also under scrutiny.
The Record of Bergen County (180,000-circulation daily paper in northern New Jersey) announced that it will review the news articles written by Viswanathan during her stint as an intern in 2003 and 2004.

The big winner in this amazing story is Ms. Megan McCafferty - our main victim.
If copying is the highest form of flattery, she is on top of the world.
The latest count shows that more than 40 passages were lifted from her novels by Kaavya Viswanathan.
At this moment, McCafferty has more than 400,000 copies in print (compared to Viswanathan’s 100,000) and recently launched her third novel “Charmed Thirds”.
Megan declined all interviews, and let publishers and lawyers speak for her.
According to her publisher:
This has been an enormous distraction for Megan. It's been a very, very difficult and devastating couple of weeks for her.”
Cheer up dear, it’s time to laugh all the way to the bank.

Are you curious to know what Ms. Viswanathan wants to be after graduation from Harvard? No, not a lawyer, but close – an investment banker on Wall Street!

Thursday, March 30, 2006

How to solve a family fued - by becoming infallible

Legislation is a powerful tool – just check the history of the American Constitution or the British Magna Carta.

But using it to outsmart your brother is unique – but effective if we look at Brunei (a small but rich country).
The Sultan of Brunei is fighting his younger brother Prince Jefri Bolkiah, in court.
The Sultan accuses his brother of embezzling around $ 12 billion during his 13 years as finance minister.
In 2000, the two brothers reached an out-of-court settlement that compelled Jefri to pay back $ 4.5 billion in assets, including properties in Paris, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan, Britain and the US.

It seems that the London-based Jefri never honored the agreement, while continuing his $ 400,000 a month lifestyle.

In the latest court ruling by Chief Justice Mohammad Saied, Prince Jefri has been ordered to sell his London mansion (St John's Lodge in Regent's Park), the five-star New York Palace Hotel in Manhattan, the Bel-Air Hotel in Los Angeles, a property at Place Vendome in Paris, a mansion in Singapore and an undisclosed quantity of cash and jewels.
To ensure this, the monarch changed the Brunei constitution and gave himself the same status as the Pope – he is infallible.

His Majesty the Sultan ... can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity.”
As a result, Prince Jefri has no legal options to appeal the latest ruling – unless he becomes Sultan.

To prevent Prince Jefri blabbing to the press, the following was degreed:
No person shall publish or reproduce in Brunei or elsewhere any part of proceedings ... that may have the effect of lowering or adversely affecting directly or indirectly the position, dignity, standing, honor, eminence or sovereignty of His Majesty the Sultan.”

What an elegant way to settle a score with your annoying sibling!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Beware of "Chef" (especially if you are a clam)

You might not be a fan of the cartoon "South Park", but you must love the latest hoopla surrounding one of the characters.
"South Park" , known for making fun of everybody and everything (including religion), received notification that Isaac Hayes (who was well paid to lend his voice to the character "Chef"), resigned.
For those of you who are not familiar with this character, James "Chef" McElroy is a lusty school cafeteria cook who dishes out advice (as well as food) to the school children.
In one episode, the show made fun of Scientology, Mr. Hayes' religion
Mind you, Hayes never protested the mocking of Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Buddhism and Islam on the show.
It’s just the Cruise Cult (oops, I mean Hubbard’s cult) that cannot be satirized. Tssssssss.

In a reaction, the creators of the show, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, pointed out that they "never heard a peep out of Isaac in any way until we did Scientology. He wants a different standard for religions other than his own."
Well, that’s religion for you.
By nature, all religions lack a sense of humor.
There might be happy reborn Christians (one even become President), but dealing with all those mortals sins and religious obligations is just no fun. (Unless you are the Pope and infallible).
And converting sinners is no laughing matter either – it involves a lot of sorrow, soul searching and revelations.
Obviously, Hayes and his 100,000 fellow space clam worshippers are on a higher level than the billions of Christian, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims.
Funny, considering that those clam aliens reside on the bottom of our oceans.
May be they were kicked out of heaven?
Jumping up and down too many clouds and dishing out unsolicited advise?
Gives tempting the patience of a saint a whole new meaning….

But our Mr. Hayes made one big mistake - never mess around with comedians.
You see, they can get even without liability.
According to the network, the tenth season of "South Park" will start with a new episode titled "The Return of Chef!".
It marks the "triumphant homecoming" of our favorite "Chef" to the show, the network said in a statement.
So Mr. Hayes did not harm the show at all, but even gave it a lot of free publicity.
It also confirms what the public opinion: Scientology is a Religion for Dummies.
I don’t know what "The Return of the Chef!" episode entails, but if I were a writer on the show, I would commemorate the Chef’s triumphant return with a surprise visit of Oprah to the school cafeteria.
Our Chef is so taken with this, that he jumps up and down chairs, grabs Oprah repeatedly while yelling, "I am so happy!"
Feeding the hungry kids clam chowder in the mean time.
Makes sense to you?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Conspiracy theories die hard

If you are a student of journalism or you want to be highly entertained, you should try to get a glimpse of the documentary “death of a princess: accident or assassination”.
It is one of the worse products of journalism ever.

Despite the fact that Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed tragically lost their lives in a fatal car accident, the public doesn’t want to let go.
The father of Dodi, Harrods owner Mohammed Al Fayed, is still on a crusade to prove that his son was the victim of a conspiracy and was assassinated in cold blood.
In a recent television interview, he told the woman who interviewed him that Prince Philip was behind the two deaths.
Apart from being slanderous, it is also a ridiculous accusation.
Who ever heard of an undercover operation that involved a high-speed chase of uncertain outcome, executed in the busiest part of the globe (no less) with plenty of witnesses around? Well, James Bond might have been able to pull it off, but like in the movies, the idea that Diana and Dodi were the victims of an assassination is humbug.

I do sympathize with Mr. Al Fayed’s loss – it is horrendous to lose your child.
But harping on and firing off all kinds of wild theories, insulting bystanders in the process is not the answer.

The interview was not without its comical moments.
The interviewer was a middle-aged, artificially-blonde woman, who conducted the interview in broken English.
Since she was not able to formulate complete sentences and/or ask to-the-point questions, Al Fayed had lots of leeway to vent his colorful opinion of the British Royal Family.
In Al Fayed’s morality play, Dodi and Diana are the Angels, Prince Philip is the Prince of Darkness.
The Prince of Wales is referred to as “an idiot” his current wife as “a donkey” with “the smile of a crocodile”.
Apart from coming across as vengeful, the whole interview was also counter-productive.
It is hard to feel sympathy for a man who wants the Royal Family to be “sent back to Germany and Russia”, when he himself was accused of bribing people in order to get a British passport.

If ever a car accident has been investigated in depth, it’s the one of the late Princess of Wales and her friend.
In my opinion, it’s useless to keep on throwing mud in the hope it will stick.
Apart from anything else, Diana’s children should not have to deal with this constant resurrection of rumors and innuendos that victimize their own grandparents….

The only redeeming element in this interview was the fact that it was so bad that it became hilarious. It made the Oscars coverage looks like Art….enough said.
May be it will win a Razzie....

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Holloway case goes civil

The case of the missing American teenager Natalee Holloway has entered a new phase.
After being unsuccessful in finding their daughter and bringing the people they hold responsible to criminal justice, her parents have filed a civil lawsuit.

The wrongful-death lawsuit (filed in Manhattan's state Supreme Court) seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The court papers present a partly speculative version of what happened after the young people left the casino and went to a bar called Carlos 'n' Charlies in the early hours of May 30, 2005.
The court papers claim that an intoxicated Holloway left at 1:30 am with Joran van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers.
Several of Holloway's friends saw her in the car with the youths and asked her to get out, which she didn’t.
They further claim that Joran a) willfully caused personal injury to Natalee as a result of his sexual assault upon her b) wrongfully, unlawfully and intentionally detained and directly restrained Natalee Holloway c) deprived her of her personal liberty through force and/or threat of force d) abducted Natalee Holloway and prevented her from returning to the custody of her parents.
As a result of this imagined sexual assault, the last hours of her life were marked “by torment, terror and debasement.”

The lawsuit includes Joran’s father since he supposedly breached his duty to Natalee by failing to take steps to prevent Joran from sexually assaulting Natalee Holloway.
According to the court papers, Paulus van der Sloot enabled his son’s violent and anti-social lifestyle since he supposedly went on the night of the disappearance with his underage son to a casino to play poker. It was at that casino that the younger Van der Sloot met Holloway, again according to the filed lawsuit.

I find the whole lawsuit rather bizarre.
First off, I feel for the parents – it must be horrible to live with the uncertainty what happened to your child.
We all feel for Beth Twitty, who is on an ongoing crusade to find out what happened to her missing daughter.
But suing Dutch citizens (who have never been indicted for a supposed crime that could have taken place in Aruba) in a New York court in order to proceed with your fact-finding missing is too much.

Since the disappearance of her beloved daughter, Mrs. Twitty has lashed out at the Aruban and Dutch authorities.
Considering all the manpower they put in it (including flying three F-16 jets from the Netherlands to Aruba to scan the island and its surrounding waters and giving all civil servants a day-off to join the search party), she should realize that you cannot always get closure in life.
Harsh comments have been made by the Twitty camp, calling the governments that were trying to help them all kinds of names.
But look at it from the other side for a moment.
A partying American teenager goes missing.
The authorities are not too worried – so many of them reappear a few days later.
Her mother and stepfather waltz into the island with a posse, demanding instant success.
With a blatant disrespect to local customs, let alone the legal system, they go on a crusade to find the culprit and bring him to justice.
Enlisting the help of the US media, that flooded the island pre-hurricane Katrina, they meddled and probed in the legal proceedings and try to force police and public prosecutor to do it “their way.”
Newsflash: Aruba is not an American territory and is ruled by the Dutch legal system.
So forget about plea bargaining, jury, etc.
The Dutch and Aruban legal proceedings follow a strict system with build-in guarantees of fair trial as well as privacy.
Therefore, no policeman, judge, public prosecutor, or trial lawyer will go to the media and talk.
It is a pity the Twitty camp was too focused (to say it politely) to realize this.
Don’t forget, the Aruban authorities let the FBI in to assist.
Would this also fly in Alabama?
If it would have been an Alabaman boy and a Dutch female victim and the scene was Birmingham, Alabama, would the local sheriff department allow Dutch officials assist?
I don’t think so – the US media would be all over it claiming that the US has a wonderful legal system (just ask OJ!) and will handle it internally.
If they had been more patient and had worked with the authorities instead of antagonizing them, the result would quite likely be different.
Now that criminal procedures are at a dead end (unless Natalee or her body turns up and/or there will be a full and substantiated confession), the Twitty camp cannot let go. Understandable, for sure, but not productive.

The civil suit will quite likely been thrown out on the technicality of lack of jurisdiction.
The parents that filed the suit are in Alabama and Mississippi.
The Van der Sloots are Dutch and the disappearance happened on Aruba.
I am pretty sure that the overworked courts in New York have better things to do than dive into this high profile case.

Funny enough, the ones that were not sued by the Twittys were the school and supervisors. I find this very strange indeed – the girl went missing during her supervised senior class graduation trip of the Mountain Brook High School. Shouldn’t they have supervised better?
So what is the deal here?
May be it’s easier to sue a bunch of foreigners than people of your hometown?

The big winners in this case are the networks.
It’s a TV station’s dream: pretty, blue-eyed blonde ravished by a tall, dark (and Caucasian) foreigner on a tropical island.
Let’s face it – the average viewer doesn’t want to hear or see any of the numerous missing Afro-American and Hispanic teenagers (especially male ones!).
What sells for the networks are images of pretty Natalee wearing her cheerleader outfit and the circumstances that could be lifted from a cheap murder mystery.
Fox, NBC, CBS and Dr. Phil (who launched his own farfetched theory about what happened during an interview with Jay Leno) have all joined the media circus, milking the story to the hilt.
Will the truth ever been known?
Not likely, and the civil proceeding (sadly enough) will not change that as well.
In the mean time, the island of Aruba has been victimized.
As one fed up Aruban said (voicing the general Aruban and Dutch public opinion): “she was just not worth all the trouble.”

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Doing it too Brown –a (legal) tale of biblical proportions

I wonder if there is anyone out there who didn’t read (or at least heard of) the religious thriller “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

The book is a blend of historical conspiracy and murder mystery evolving around the theme that the bloodline from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene married into the Merovingian line of French kings and survived by being protected by a secret society based in France.

Random House published the novel that was described by Salman Rushdie as "a book so bad it makes bad books look good."
Nonetheless, it sold 40 million copies in about 40 languages since 2003 and it’s being turned into a Hollywood blockbuster with Tom Hanks as the dashing lead.

So far, so good.
But our multi-millionaire author is now being sued for allegedly ripping off the work of two biblical sleuths in order to provide the basis for his bestseller.
Richard Leigh and Michael Baigent are (two of the three) authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” in which they construct the theory that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and left a traceable bloodline.
They therefore claim that Brown infringed copyright by lifting the central premise of their “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” epos and used it as the main plot for his “The Da Vinci Code”.

Although the legal proceedings are against Random House, Brown’s UK publisher, Hollywood is getting pretty nervous as well.
The movie is set to open in May 2006 and the whole PR machine is already in full force.
If the claim has merit, the opening of the movie would be threatened.
Random House is not amused.
They argued that “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”(2 million copies sold) was one of numerous sources consulted by Mr Brown and his, who is an art historian wife Blythe.

Jonathan Rayner James QC represents Leigh and Baigent. He makes a compelling case. He states that Brown had ripped off the very specific thesis of is clients’ work to save time and effort of independent research and to give “The Da Vinci Code” "plausibility.”

A closer look reveals the following:
  • The "central theme" of “The Da Vinci Code” - the bloodline from a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene survives today - is the key theory of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • The chief villain of Brown's book is Leigh Teabing. Mr Brown is accused of deliberately forming the name from an anagram of the surnames of the two authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • Jacques Sauniere, the curator of the Louvre found murdered in the “The Da Vinci Code”, has the same surname as Berenger Sauniere, a monk mentioned extensively in “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”
  • The Da Vinci Code mentions specific historical events - the Council of Nicea, which "voted" on the status of Jesus as a deity, and the connection between Godfroi de Bouillon and the bloodline of Jesus - which allegedly appear only in “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.”

If successful, the claimants could be awarded a share of the profits from the four million copies of The Da Vinci Code sold in Britain and a proportion of future sales.
The case is expected to last two weeks.

It’s not the first time Mr. Brown has been accused of plagiarism.
In August 2005, Brown ended up in a New York City court, when Lewis Perdue claimed that Brown had used sections from two of his novels (“The Da Vinci Legacy” (1983) and “Daughter Of God” (2000).
Perdue sued for $150 million in damages as well as an injunction blocking further distribution of Brown's book and the forthcoming movie adaptation.
Judge George Daniels, presiding at New York District Court, ruled that any similarity between the works of fiction was based on unprotectable ideas, since a reasonable average lay observer would not conclude that The Da Vinci Code is substantially similar to Daughter of God. Furthermore, the court declared any slightly similar elements on the level of generalized or otherwise unprotectable ideas.

The UK proceedings are a lawyer’s dream come true.
If the court rules in favor of the authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail”, it could open a floodgate of litigation for people who have had their ideas been lifted or stolen.
It would also force authors to be careful where they get their inspiration from and be meticulous in their research.

No matter what the outcome will be, it already has all the makings of a great courtroom thriller…

Sunday, February 19, 2006

A thought for President's Day

A group of presidential historians have rated the 10 worse mistakes US Presidents have made.

On top of the list is President James Buchanan, for failing to avert the Civil War.
Enough said.

In 2nd place is Andrew Johnson, who (just after the Civil War ended) decided to side with Southern whites and oppose improvements in justice for Southern blacks beyond abolishing slavery.
We continue to pay for Johnson's errors,” wrote Michael Les Benedict, an Ohio State University history professor emeritus.

A well-deserved 3rd place goes to Lyndon Johnson for allowing the Vietnam War to intensify.
Legions of Americans are still paying the price.

Woodrow Wilson's refusal to compromise on the Treaty of Versailles after World War I (or the Great War as the Brits call it) ranks him 4th in this list.
Not sure about the historical implication here - it seems that the Krauts were upset.

The 5th place goes to Richard Nixon for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up .
The sad thing is – he would have won anyway.

Number 6 is President James Madison failed to keep the United States out of the War of 1812 with Britain – big mistake, never get involved in any bellicose activities.

Thomas Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 ranks 7.
It was a self-imposed prohibition on trade with Europe during the Napoleonic Wars.
Looks like a Dumb Move to me – I am sure that the little Corsair didn’t give a damn one way or the other.

John F. Kennedy ranks 8 for allowing the Bay of Pigs Invasion that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
That was one scary episode that nearly started another world war.

Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair occupy the 9th place for the effort to sell arms to Iran and use the money to finance an armed anti-communist group in Nicaragua.
I know, it sounds like a bad storyline in a B-movie.
But what do you expect from a C-list actor?

And our charming Bill Clinton is ranked at 10 for his Monica Lewinsky involvement.
I find this quite surprising.
Let’s face it– the presidents ranking 1-9 blatantly disregarded human rights, went to war, harmed the economy, threatened world peace and committed felonies.
All Bill did was engage in some extra-matrimonial activities that the person most harmed by it (his wife) publicly forgave him.
So what’s the big deal? He was even able to stay in office.
Will history even remember the Clinton Scandal? I doubt it since it didn't have an impact on American history or its people.
May be in another 300 years, a filmmaker will produce some racy miniseries about this colorful President.
In the mean time, I rank Clinton as a President that didn’t go to war, boosted the economy and could charm the birds from the trees.
Let’s see if the other Clinton will be able to follow in her hubby’s footsteps…..

Happy President's Day

Sunday, January 22, 2006

De Bello Birkenstocko

War is raging in the Birkenstock family. So what? you might say.
Well, it’s not just a family tiff – big bucks are involved.
You see, the Birkenstock family has been producing footwear since 1774.
Over the last decades, the current generation of Birkenstocks were able to turn padded, hippie footwear into a multi-million dollar business.

As always, it’s a case of cherchez la femme – in this case Susanne Birkenstock, who married Christian Birkenstock at the age of 18 in the late 1990s, produced two children and then started divorce procedures.
Our Susanne is a hard-nosed businesswoman who spent seven years in the family's garage developing her own line of orthopedic shoes. (Since the family home is a castle, we can safely assume that the garage was big enough to do some serious shoe tinkering.)
Since a girl has to make a living, separated (and heading for divorce) Suzy started producing her own sandals, promoting them on talk shows. Since she has blond good looks, more money than the average high-tech startup and a well-known family name, the talk show circuit just loves her.
Her own Beautystep sandals boast a specially designed sole “mimicking the effect of a foot stretching out as it sinks into fine sand.”
The sandals are positioned to help the wearer to burn fat and reduce cellulite.

Needless to say, the original Birkenstocks (Christian and his two brothers, not the hippie wear) were breathing fire when they found out.
They screamed that Susanne is using the Birkenstock name to market her scientifically questionable product.
They demanded that she stops using the family name for any product endorsement.
Humbug” retorted the enterprising near-divorcee.
Birkenstock is my legal name and that of my children. I have been a Birkenstock for half of my life.”
For sure, the name Birkenstock helped to sell the more than 35,000 pairs of sandals in Germany, Austria and Switzerland since Beautystep was launched in 2004.

The B. brothers took aggressive action – they had their marketing executive sent a letter to all Birkenstock retailers and distributors, accusing Susanne Birkenstock of profiting from her married name.
They also petitioned a German court to stop her from using it in marketing.

In February 2005, a court in Cologne ruled that Susanne Birkenstock could use her name as the designer of her shoes but imposed restrictions on how prominently it could be featured in sales materials.
Toeing this fine line meant making some changes in Beautystep’s marketing, such as abandoning a website for SB International that used her married name and relying only on the Beautystep site.
The Birk brothers were still not amused.
They kept being plagued with inquiries from retailers and wholesalers about the Beautystep brand.
Instead of doing the sensible thing, buying up Beautystep, milking it for maximum publicity and increasing sales (as well as the inheritance of Susanne’s and Christian’s offspring), the brothers decided to make lawyers happy (brandname infringement) and petiotoned a higher court to toughen the rules established by the lower court.
The Birkenstockies are mainly ticked off by the fact that Beautystep keeps being referred to as Birkenstock by distributors, television stations or journalists.

In my opinion, the Birkenstocks should have a close look at the business potential of this smart cookie – with an initial investment in 2003 of Euro 200,000; she was able to break even in 2005.
Being one smart marketer, the Birkenstock group would be wise to appoint her as its Global Chief Marketing Executive. It would also save them a bundle in legal fees.

Who would have thought that the main footwear suppliers of Woodstock, environmenatalists and micro-biotic lifestyle seekers would be so 1980s business aggressive?
O tempores, o mores......

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Job evaluation and all that

All you laborforce participants had to go through the annual ritual of your annual job evaluation talks.
Yep, the Boss calls you into his office, closes the door, and looks at you like a physician who has to tell you that you have a terminal illness.
It’s a ploy, of course. You see, by looking grim and glum, Bossy can prevent you from expecting a bonus or (gasp!) asking for a raise.

It’s a two-way street. You can also comment on my job performance,” boss-dear happily tells you. Don’t fall for it – being critical (especially when justified!) is a surefire way to be kicked out.
Just agree with how great s/he is, how much you like work, and when put on the spot, criticize something general.
(Suggestions: “there are different opinions in the company about the corporate goals and mission” or “various departments seem to have different priorities”)
No matter how good you are – don’t expect too much praise or recognition.

To pull you through this slightly painful process, I composed the following questionnaire.
You can rate your boss by answering the following 5 questions.
(I strongly suggest you do this at home and NOT on your workstation).

Your boss is:
a) intelligent b) clever, but you can outsmart him/her c) dumb as my cat

Your boss is:
a) a warm and lovely person b) OK and almost human c) a sexist pig/uptight bitch

Your boss is:
a) thinks the world of you b) give you credit for your work c) steels all you bright ideas and
pass them off as his/hers

Your boss sees him/herself as:
a) a decent human being b) superior to others c) master of the universe

Your boss sees you as:
a) a wonderful employee and person b) a good resource to be used c) a slave to be abused

If most of your answers are A:
Congratulations! You have a great job and boss, who is quite likely your spouse, lover or a family member that catapulted you into your current cushy position.
Alternatively: you lied through your teeth when answering the questions (in which case you are beyond hope and should consider a career in politics).

If most of your answers are B:
Welcome to the average work hell! You are quite likely working for the government, a financial institution or another workplace managed by zombies. Enjoy your time in your current job until you can enjoy your well(?)deserved pension.

If most of your answers are C: poor you! Your work in high-tech or (yikes)Bush/Schwarzenegger is your boss.
No matter – dig up all the dirt you can and write your memoirs once you leave your job.

And to finish this blog with a real Boss Quote:
"Teamwork is a lot of people doing what I say." (Marketing executive, Citrix Corporation)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Roaming "Rome"

The TV drama series “Rome” has been hailed as amazing.
Well, it certainly did the trick of amazing me!
You see, I had the pleasure of 6 years of Latin (2 hours a day) in school and was always curious how ancient Rome and its inhabitants would have looked like.
The HBO series enticed me with a great “behind the scenes” preview explaining about the sets and costumes.
In good BBC tradition, they showed how they made copies of artifacts and outfits, only applying materials and dyes that were in use two millennia ago.
hey also meticulously build copies of Roman streets, buildings, temples and the like.

I was impressed, and looking forwards to the first episode.
I mean, any channel that produced the critically acclaimed and massively enjoyed “Claudius” series would do a great job – so I thought.

The first episode started with a very graphic and unrealistic sex scene.
It seems that if you show an actress in full frontal nudity in a historical drama, the scene will not be censored.
Probably to emphasize the historical context, slaves were waving big feather fans to cool the coupling couple.
The actress might have been completely nude, but her partner was wearing some leather straps across his torso. Not sure if this had a Symbolic Meaning, or the not-so-bright character wore them for protection.
After the lady had her merry way with him, she hopped into a bath the size of a small swimming pool under the eyes of her young son, who she happily invited to watch her while she rose from the foams. Not sure what the meaning of that was – may be showing her son that the plastic surgeon (or whatever they had in those times – no idea, my Latin textbooks mainly dealt with wars) did a great boob job?

The scene suddenly switched to the battlefields in Gaul.
Oy, that brought back hours of “De Bello Gallico”!
A Roman soldier was heavily whipped and seemed to enjoy it.
Ah well, to each his own, I assume…

Scene in the Roman Senate – Cato shouted at Cicero who shouted at Pompey who shouted at everyone else.
Didn’t make a lot of sense – maybe Caligula was not that crazy when he made his favorite horse a senator.

Back to the Lustful Lady who sent her young son on a horse to Gaul.
The horse was a gift for Caesar.
Obviously the wench wanted to butter him up for something or other.
She looked definitely Alexis Carrington-like when she sent the boy off.

More scenes with blood, torture and all that.
I lost the jest of the story at that point, so I cannot relate much of the storyline from here on - also because I was too distracted by the actors.
You see, the costumes and the set are gorgeous, no doubt about it.
As far as I remember, especially the outfits of the soldiers are accurate to the smallest details.
But the cast…. brrrrr.

I understand that it’s hard to find native Latin-speaking actors and let’s face it, Americans also refuse to read subtitles.
But what makes them think that an upperclass/public school English accent will do the trick?
But even more pathetic are the looks of the actors.
Not only do they look Anglo-Saxon, most of them have distinctive Celtic looks.
Don’t get me wrong; Kevin McKidd is goodlooking and a fine actor, but no Lucius Voranus.
The actor that plays Cato not only has a typical British army officer face, but the slightly crooked underbite teeth that go with it.

Young Octavian, with his angelic blond curls, blue eyes and lily-white complexion, should shine in a Harry Potter movie.
None of the ladies have the strong classical features, dark hair and eyes, and the olive complexion that sat so well on the Roman matrons of old.
Both Atia and Servilia are Irish-looking with ivory skin, red hair and blue eyes – they would do better in a Jane Austin movie than roaming the mean streets of ancient Rome.
The horses looked OK though…

I have to admit that I only saw 30 minutes of the first episode – I fell asleep when the Romans started crucifying Gauls. (Something to do with the Eagle Standard and money changing hands – made me think of the Presidential elections).

If Rome is your cup of wine (they hadn’t tea or coffee yet, which might explain the excessive violence), fine by me.
Personally, I prefer Roman Holiday to Rome….

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The three most stupid quotes in 2006

It's 2006 and we can look back at an inventful 2005, filled with lots of stupid quotes by clever, dumb and dangerous people.
Needless to say, the two chief clowns of US media circus win top places.
Just to make sure to point out that stupidity is not limited to nationality, age or gender, I also put it a great quote from an anchorperson (F).

I am sure that we can look forwards to a new year full of even more bizarre quotes.
But for now, enjoy these ones.....

"They are like leaches, I am so sick of them"

Following Michael Jackson's much-publicized trial and subsequent departure for Bahrain, it seemed the world would get some peace and quiet from the former king of pop.
But this remark proved he just cannot stay away from the limelight, and that he just doesn’t like Jews. After he realized that his former advisor filed a USD 64 million lawsuit against him, Jackson decided to leave him a voicemail message:
"I am so sick of them… they make so much money, they made me broke.. It’s a plot.
The Jews are doing this intentionally
This message was eventually heard around the world. Jackson did not bother to reply to the criticisms and accusations of anti-Semitism.
His advisors were satisfied with a laconic response that the conversation was recorded illegally, and without Jackson’s consent.
Please remember that Adolf H. started out as a democratically elected leader….

God told me: George, go on and fight the terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq"

President Bush was furious over the leak and strongly denied ever making those remarks, but that’s what Palestinian minister Nabil Shaath said Bush told him.
Shaath said that in a conversation with the American president, Bush revealed the real reason he led Americans into war in Iraq and Afghanistan:
"God told me: George, go on and put an end to tyranny in Iraq, and so I did.
And now, once again, I feel the words of God come to me: go on and get the Palestinians their own country, give the Israelis their security and bring peace to the Middle East.
And in God’s name that’s what I’ll do."
Move over, Joan of Arc

"It’s been 11 days since two African-American teenagers were killed, electrocuted during a police chase, which prompted all of this."

American anchorperson Carol Lin covered the riots that broke out in Paris and quickly spread to other French cities (as well as other countries).
The two teenagers mentioned were French citizens of Tunisian descent (and would be classified in the US as Caucasian).
They definitely never were Americans.
Flunked your geography and history tests in high school, dear one?