Celebrating EU 25 

Instead of writing my own bombastic welcome to the new EU, I just forward you to this one , deservedly by Timothy Garton Ash, in the Guardian (through Oxblog).

Tomorrow is a good day for the European Union.


The inofficial totally subjective ranking of the EU’s most boring countries 

This survey with a sample size of one was conducted after coming across frequent references such as this to Belgium as the shining sample of an uninteresting European country. To verify these claims, a complicated but nevertheless completely unscientific scoring method was developed which ranks the 25 EU member states as of 1 May 2004 by their individual lack of interest. Three dimensions were considered to compute the total score: lack of cultural interest, lack of political excitement, and absence of any originality/dynamism/importance of the economy. It has to be said that smaller countries are therefore favoured in this ranking, which enables Luxemburg to beat Belgium for the top spot, despite all attempts by the sample group to avoid this.

(rank – interest penalty – country name)

1. 24 Luxemburg
2. 35 Belgium
3. 36 Denmark
4. 38 Cyprus
5. 39 Malta
6. 40 Latvia
7. 41 Lithuania
8. 48 Ireland
9. 49 Finland
10. 50 Austria
11. 52 Greece
12. 54 Estonia
13. 59 Portugal
13. 59 Slovenia
15. 61 Czech Republic
15. 61 Hungary
17. 63 Slovakia
18. 71 Netherlands
18. 71 Poland
20. 74 Sweden
21. 83 Italy
22. 84 Spain
23. 91 France
24. 98 Germany
25.100 United Kingdom

Further information and hints for politicians how to improve the standing of their country can be found here.

Boring countries explained 

1. What is the maximum possible interest penalty?

The penalty is normalised so that the last country in the ranking, the mightily interesting UK, has a penalty of 100. There were three dimensions of scoring, which were then individually normalised to cover the same value range.

2. What are the three dimensions used for scoring?

a. Cultural interest: Old cultural achievements such as ruins or scriptures help a bit for the penalty, but vibrant contemporary cultural achievements count more.

b. Political excitement: Extremists in government? Festering ethnic conflicts? Weird things going on? They get you my attention, but do you want to have it?

c. Originality/dynamism/importance of the economy: Estonia had a high penalty here, but so did Germany. Is it worth reading about the economic development of your country in the last ten years?

3. Why is Denmark on rank 3 but Sweden on rank 20?

If Sweden is on rank 20, why would I need Denmark on rank 19? Does it give me much that I don’t have already in Sweden? ;-) It’s just a silly little list, please don’t take it personal, anyone.


My bet for the result of the EU elections in Austria 

..now that I know since 10 minutes that Hans-Peter Martin will run as an independent candidate.

SPÖ 35%
ÖVP 34,5%
H.-P. Martin 12%
Grüne 10%
FPÖ 8%
Linke 0,5%

If you read this blog, there is no need to pay for opinion polls :-)

German interior minister in favour of targetted killings? 

On the occasion of the assassination of Hamas-leader Rantisi by Israeli forces, another wave of universal condemnation of such targetted killings swept around the globe. There are legal, philosophical and political arguments - a decent summary (in German) has been published by the Austrian weekly profil. The legal arguments seem to speak clearly against the killings, the philosophical debate seems to provide quite some room for them, and the political arguments in either direction mostly seem to rest on subjective predictions of the future outcome of the Israeli policy, which in reality seem to be highly uncertain. Still, at least European public opinion is almost unanimously opposed.

However, on 26 April the German weekly Der Spiegel published an interview with German interior minister Otto Schily (in German) that has created shock and disbelief in Germany because Schily seems to at least consider the option of targetted killings in the fight against terrorism, at least outside of Europe. I translate the most important excerpts below:

Schily: (...) I am in clear opposition to the death penalty and will remain so for all my life. But we must and will defend ourselves - if need be in a way that cannot spare the life of the terrorists. In such extreme cases as in Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism requires the use of military means.

Spiegel: Like the Israelis or the US, who in Jemen killed an Qaida-representative and five people travelling with him by means of a rocket attack?

Schily: That is a very problematic case, which is not in conformance with our interpretation of the law. But a clear settlement of these matters in the international context is still missing. In war we reserve the right to kill the opponent. Is there not a right of self defense against terrorists who are plotting for acts of mass murder? This leads to the question whether the killing of a person can be justified as self defense in the extreme case.

Spiegel: And which conclusion have you reached?

Schily: That is a very delicate question.

Spiegel: Do we understand you correctly: You do not exclude targetted killings?

Schily: I haven't said that..

Spiegel: ..but thinking about it already creates the option, doesn't it. We remember a Spiegel-interview half a year ago, in which interior minister Schily challenged the international community to find answers to such questions. To which result has this dicussion led?

Schily: This matter blurs the limits of criminal law, police law and martial law. The questions are so difficult that no definite answers exist yet.

Spiegel: Maybe many states have no interest in clearing up this uncertainty. The US seems to have less concerns about killing a suspect or sending him to Guantamo than to bring him before a regular court.

Schily: The problem for politics is that it sometimes has to act before the right categories have been found.

Spiegel: In times of Guantamo and other excesses we would nevertheless like to know when a state takes the liberty to permanently arrest suspects without a court order, or even to to kill them.

Schily: We have to distinguish between the situation that we are facing Europe and the situation outside. Within Europe we defend ourselves against terrorism in the framework of the fight against crime. For example, this excludes targetted killings - with the exception of certain measures of self defense or emergency measures, under the heading of the so-called 'ultimate shot to save' (Finaler Rettungsschuss).

Spiegel: This means, within Europe we do not lead a war, but a fight against terrorism?

Schily: Yes, but outside of Europe, for example in Afghanistan, we have used military means, also with corresponding so-called collateral damages. That is then war. But if we say that in the extreme case it is legitimate to even kill highly dangerous attackers, then it is only consistent to restrict their ability of movement already in advance. Here we are at the difficult question where to situate the border between military and policing measures. (...) In police law we could create the basis for a kind of 'security detainment' (Sicherungshaft), which grants certain rights to the detainees such as access to a lawyer and examination by a court (...) The decisive question is always: Is the presence of a person an objective danger for our country that we cannot accept? If this is the case, it must be possible to expel this person, even when the person claims: "I have now turned into a peaceful shopkeeper".

Der Spiegel is also performing an online poll on the question: Should targetted killings of terrorists be allowed in the fight against terrorism? At 6597 votes cast, there was a rather surprising two-thirds majority in favour.


Not much about Cyprus 

One of the nice things about this blog is that I can write about things of which I have only a very faint idea. The outcome is of course questionable, but maybe a few strings can still be tied together. The Cyprus situation, especially after the failed referendum is on my mind today.

There is a post with substantial discussion in the comments on Fistful of Euros. The comments there include a link to a post that offers some inside analysis in sympathy with the Greek Cypriot government. While most other comments are rather negative about the Greek Cypriot position on this, I was rather startled by this enthusiastic support statement for the Greek Cypriots (in German) on Isenberg's Beobachtungen, which praises the Greeks for their steadfastness in the face of historic injustice. I cannot quite follow this logic, since it seems to me that in situations like this, what is needed is compromise and a certain willingness to forget in order to have a good chance for a new beginning. But as I said, I'm not an expert on Cyprus, an island with a population of less than a million people. For the new EU with its fourhundred something million citizens, it is important to find the right amount of attention and resources to spend on such locally contained problems - the balance between universal priorities and justified attention to local particularities is and remains a key challenge for this strange and growing multinational beast.


A minor readjustment 

Due to the result of the election on 25 April 2004, the next Austrian president will be Heinz Fischer, who succeeds Thomas Klestil. What will change?

First, a review of the incumbent. Klestil cut a very poor figure in yesterday's TV reports, in which he looked ill and frail, and was mentioned mainly for the embarrassment of having forgotten his electoral card at home - he needed to appeal to a politician's privilege to be able to accomplish even the primitive democratic act of voting. Twelve years ago, he had promised to the electorate to be a strong and dynamic president who would check the power of the elected government - a promise on which he delivered little, maybe due to a certain lack of political skillfulness, as one analyst pointed out yesterday. He also became the unfortunate victim of a then rather popular belief that the role of the federal president was much more powerful in the constitution than how it had been interpreted by the previous presidents. Klestil's attempts in this direction quickly showed that in the reality of the political system, a president who would exercise his stronger constitutional rights would only provoke a constitutional crisis, which would damage himself before anyone else. Originally nominated by the conservative party, Klestil oversaw the rise of the conservatives to become the party of the chancellor, and then the strongest party in parliament. Paradoxically, he himself got more and more estranged from his fellow conservatives, and in the end he and chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel were antagonistic figures, where Klestil represented the traditional Austrian political approach of consensus and compromise, and Schüssel the approach of a fast moving, controversial style of government. Klestil looked oldfashioned but oddly compassionate (oddly because he was never a socially inspired politician), Schüssel looked modern if cold. This made Klestil a rather awkward figure during his last years in office.

Some of what Heinz Fischer, and even more so his social-democratic campaign team, declared after yesterday's 52.4% win seems to indicate a danger that Fischer will enter the presidency in the very same antagonistic relationship with the chancellor in which Klestil left it. Cold but efficient chancellor - socially compassionate but ineffective president. Fischer will naturally try to appeal to the social conscience of the nation, and he is famous for his style of dialog and compromise. Fischer has hinted that the solution he sees to this potential problem is that his interpretation of the office will be much more modest than Klestil's, that he will not seek conflict with the goverment on the level of specific policies or even political style - although the social-democratic party will certainly hope that he does just that.

One change will certainly be that Fischer will be more credible as an advocate of the weak and disadvantaged than Klestil, the career diplomat, ever was. Whether this will have noticeable effects on the political climate of the country is one of the most interesting open questions. Fischer will have difficulty in avoiding 'false friends' from the ranks of the left opposition, who will be all too ready to exaggerate every word of warning and calls to reflection that Fischer may utter, and try to use them as ammunition in their daily infight with the government. This would risk to sabotage the emergence of an impartial moral authority attributed to president Fischer - yet this kind of authoritative stature is the main critical success factor for his desired style of presidency. It is not coincidental that Fischer stressed repeatedly his wish to gain the support of 70-80% of the population within one year.

The rest is unknown. Will Fischer find words that stick to memory, and that introduce new nuances into the political process of this country? Will he be able to identify the topics of the future, and will he have something modern and new to say about them? The good thing about Fischer is that he is intelligent, he is well-read, he has the intellectual tools. To use them well is his task.


Final campaign statement 

..for an Austrian presidential campaign that has suffered from too much smoke where there is little fire. In a way, it is civilised democratic politics at its best: a huge public discussion (at least in terms of quantity of media coverage) about an office where it makes little practical difference who is the office-holder. This should open a space for elaborate public debates about many issues, which has hardly been the case. A few words have been said about Austrian neutrality and about pension reform, but really nothing new. I feel that there has been a lack of candidates, by which I do not want to imply something negative about the two candidates who will be on the ballot. But for an election like this, I would have preferred to see something like the 150 candidates who were on the ballot for the Californian Recall election last autumn. A few of them should have been offered by each of the parties in parliament, and the rest independents representing a large spectrum of Austrian society. The winning candidate should be the one who most people believe will add something interesting to the country's political system, while also being able to fulfil the formal duties of the president sufficiently well.

I will vote for Heinz Fischer, as I wrote in an earlier post. I hope he takes my vote as an encouragement to explore new paths in his political thinking and in his public statements, rather than just repeating his good old credo over and over. If he chooses the latter, he might become an unbearable bore - please don't.


Visions against the strong anti-EU position 

Here is a simple argument for why it is easier to maintain a strong anti-EU position than a strong pro-EU position. By 'strong' I mean a quality that is reflected in a high potential of popular support, for example in the context of a referendum.

Patriotism, or nationalism, is highly popular. It is a popular mythology that is not under pressure to justify itself rationally. However, EU-patriotism, a sense of "proud to be a EU-citizen" is virtually inexistent. It is frustratingly easy for the EU-opponent to play the national mythology against the lack of voter affection for the 'abstract' EU with all its disadvantages.

There is a simple pro-EU position which is quite untenable. It goes like this: "We all know what it is to be a national patriot. Well, now let's just copy that warm feeling in our guts and be EU patriots." The line never catches on with majorities because essentially nobody, not even the advocates of such a position, really feels like that. I've seen this kind of pro-EU position in young conservatives. But typically, what they really mean is this: "We are the bourgeois national elite. By extension, we have a chance to become part of the bourgeois EU elite. We will take our chance, have fun, and become rich". It's not an option for the majority and they know it.

Why is there no simple road to EU-patriotism? At first sight: because the EU is so vast and complex, there is no simple identity core. But that would hold just as much for the USA. The difference: a nation-wide popular mythology does exist in the US, for historical reasons. Nobody can afford to wait a century to watch whether something similar will develop in Europe.

The pro-EU camp needs to find a different defense against the strong anti-EU position. What is the antidote to nationalism? Of course, many substantive answers have been given: prosperity, peace, freedom of individuals, addressing global problems with globally relevant solutions - these are just some that come to my mind first. These are noble goals, and many referendums have been won in Europe based on such arguments. Yet, the nationalism weapon always remains a threat, and the pro-EU position consistently underperforms at the polls.

On the issues where nationalism is most effective, the answer the pro-EU advocates can give is complicated: common European cultural values are worth something (but how are they defined and where are their geographical limits?); exporting wealth to neighbours buys security, and so on. The matter becomes particularly difficult during periods of EU extension: How do you communicate to voters the core identity of something that keeps growing and changing in character?

This question I think is the most important for the defense of the EU. What is needed are political programs that can be explained to a TV audience in half a sentence, but that still can catch the imagination of the public. I'm thinking of easy-to-grasp visions like Jacques Delors' "concentric circles" of different levels of integration and collaboration reaching out to the Maghreb countries, or also Romano Prodi's concept of a "ring of friends" in which countries like Russia or Marocco would eventually share everything with the EU except their institutions. Of course, the issue of EU membership for Turkey is the currently dominant topic of such debates. Such visions of the EU may lose a lot of their substance by the time they are implemented in policies. But it is the simple, forceful ideas and concepts (federation vs confederation is not forceful) that are the true equals of the currency of the nationalists, and maybe we should be paying more serious attention to them as the next round of critical referendums looms, this time about the EU constitution.

Note: cross-posted at Living in Europe


Lauras Stern (Laura's Star) 

This is a little note for very old people who live with very young people. If you are in this group, there is a good chance you will know "Lauras Stern", or one of the translations into 26 other languages. Lauras Stern is a series of unusually good picture books for children by former graphics designer Klaus Baumgart (of course there are, by now, also movies, TV series, audio tapes, board games...). The center of the storyline is Laura, a small girl who one night finds a little star that has fallen from the sky and landed in front of her building. One of the star's tips has broken, so Laura glues it back on. The two play a bit, and eventually the star returns to the sky. But Laura knows now that she has a friend in the sky who is always there for her. This is her "secret", in which she finds comfort and strength when needed in later stories.

Klaus Baumgart's illustrations are warm and cosy without being too kitschy. Certainly they will have played a big role in making the book successful. As a non-religious person, I've been thinking about the symbolisms of the story. Obviously the friend in the sky who is always there for Laura is analogous to something that is told to children in primary school religious education. But there is no open reference to religion in the stories. In an audio tape version that I've had the pleasure of listening to, the longed for "friend who will truly understand me", who brings pleasure when present and sadness when he leaves, is rendered as an early adolescence dream of a boy-friend. Either way, the symbolism clearly includes the issues of longing and its non-material fulfillment, secret strength and support, force that lies within. It caters for the metaphysical needs of kids between two and seven, and simultaneously reminds the old people who read this books to the children of their own needs in that area. And it does so without the burden of an institutionalised faith - whenever I see a kids' book with the words "Jesus" or "God" on it, I discard it. So there is a very modern niche in the kids book market which Lauras Stern develops successfully - by blending our vague residual religiousness, existential fears, romantic interests and need for cosy family life. Does it also offer a glimpse at the future of religion?


Ideas about the presidency 

Yesterday evening 20% of all Austrians watched the TV debate between the two candidates for the upcoming election of the Austrian president, Heinz Fischer and Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Apart from the attempts to carve out their electoral personality profiles, a few things of substance were said about the office:

- Both candidates accept the dominant weak interpretation of the consitutional role of the president as a notary public for the government, without means to enter substantively into the legislative process.

- In consequence, they appeal to the charismatic influence that the president can exert due to his role as head of state.

- How would they use this influence?

Ferrero-Waldner wants the presidency as a "competence center" where debates about important topics take place, with the involvement of stakeholders and experts. The problem here is that Ferrero-Waldner would be hardly more than a moderator of round table discussions, since she does not strike one as a very creative or original thinker herself.

Fischer will advocate the same political positions that he has defended for many decades in prominent roles within the social-democratic party. These positions put him slightly left of the social-democratic mainstream, and he is well versed in arguing for them, but he is not an innovator. He would take a conventional social-democratic credo and present it from the Hofburg (the president's offices). This will not shake up the Austrian political system.

It is sad that there is no candidate who promises to take the democratic legitimation of this office and turn it into a new, original voice in the political debate. There would be room for this, exactly because of the weak constitutional power of the office - the president acts on Austrian society through the power of words, and words alone.


Disgusted lack of words 

Video tape of a hostage being killed sent to a TV station. We read about it with interest.

Vice-chancellor defending a party-colleague who warns that the native population will be replaced by foreigners, at a time when there are <10% foreign residents, and yearly immigration is 0,1%.


Chorherr update 

The Falter interview is now online.

Marie Ringler likes both, Chorherr and his designated successor.


Christoph Chorherr to step down 

According to Der Standard, Christoph Chorherr tells Der Falter in tomorrow's edition that he is about to step down as the leader of the Green party in the Vienna city assembly, his sole remaining leadership position. As somebody who has followed his political career with some interest, I find this disillusioning.

The interest for non-Vienna based readers: Chorherr started as an academic at the business university, became known for his intelligence and constructiveness as an opposition politician, and for a while seemed to be developing a successful career as a politician based primarily on these credentials. He became the national leader of his party at one point in the nineties based essentially on the fact that he was the most able-brained of the lot. His reign was relatively short-lived however, because the more radical wing of that party did not like somebody who was willing to argue for positions based on merit, even when they were at odds with cozy, if sometimes inappropriate party ideology. Chorherr stepped down from his national leadership role and assumed the leadership of the Viennese party organisation, the strongest regional branch. But even there, it seems that over the years he became outflanked. The way this looks now, he seems to have failed for being too boring, too academic, too little of an entertainer - and all this in a semi-bald, thirty-something male. He says "I accept that attending balls is part of political business, but fortunately I never had to sit at a carnival's guild". "We need more excitement and less brains", whisper the trees.

Political scratchpad, II 

American presidential contender John Edwards was credited with running a 'positive campaign'. This is more than just being constructive, it implies also to phrase criticism and things like spending cuts in words that emphasise their positive implications. It is a positive thing really (as opposed to 'spin', which even presents the plain negative as a positive, just for egoistic advantage).

5'. Provide structured integration of immigrants into social welfare programs
6'. Multidimensional support and incentives during periods of unemployment
7'. Alleviate wage barriers to job creation
8'. Extend national welfare into regional welfare and global welfare

Then there is the issue of the messenger: Not everybody is allowed to propose every measure; the image of the messenger must be compatible. A millionaire arguing for spending cuts for the unemployed will always have a problem. (Metablogging: This is why academics are doing so well on the A-list)


List of desired political improvements, scratchpad 

1. more budget for relieving global poverty
2. remove trade barriers against poor countries
3. young age is a factor for receiving a residence permit, high education level is not
4. everybody with a residence permit is allowed to work
5. a work permit does not immediately give access to all social benefits (only gradually)
6. support the unemployed with voluntary programs for a structured daily life, whereas the financial level of unemployment benefits should be relatively low
7. minimum wages have to get lower (Kollektivverträge in Austria)
8. the resulting increased local economic inequality contributes to much improved global welfare. Anyway the main reason for local economic inequality is not income differentials, but inheritance differentials (due to the long period of peace and prosperity)
9. wage increase due to seniority must get much smaller - more wealth for the young, more employability for the old
10. paid work is a tool for financial advancement, it is not in itself the highest goal in society


Frauen für Fischer (Women for Fischer) 

Nobody will care, but I don't like this. Two candidates for the upcoming election of the Austrian president: A man and a woman. There have been female candidates before, they all did better than expected, but none of them had more than c.12% of the vote. This time, since the female candidate is supported by the biggest party, she has a chance of winning. She is an energetic foreign minister - he is an experienced, intellectual career politician.

The people supporting the man were afraid that the woman would be helped by the fact that she is a woman, since some women might prefer a female candidate. To counter this, a big initiative has developed, in which women supporting the male candidate come out saying that they, as women, support the male candidate, because "being a woman is not enough".

Of course being a woman is not enough - who ever claimed it was? So effectively, they're implying that the female candidate does not have any qualifications for the job except being a woman. This is actually quite offensive and sexist - it is quite obvious even to non-supporters that the female candidate DOES have some relevant qualifications, she has worked at the UN and is after all foreign minister. So let's be generous, maybe that is not what the majority of the women in "Frauen for Fischer" want to express. Maybe what they mean is that, since being a woman is not enough, one needs to look at the qualifications of each candidate, and judge based on them and based on them alone.

That is perfectly legitimate. But if this is the supposed message, why on earth should it be relevant that there is a "Frauen for Fischer" initiative which seems to dominate his whole compaign, would it not be much more natural to have something like "Austrians for Fischer"? What is so special about the fact that the supporters of Fischer also include women (c. 50% women, one would hope). What is so energising about the fact that the opposing candidate is a woman? Is a woman that one does not support so much more of a provocation than a man one does not support?

To provide context, I'm going to vote for the man, but being a man is not enough.


Austria, a short stroll along the borders 

It is not as if we sit in nutshells that float next to each other on the surface of Europe. But today I also don't want to contribute to an overly serious discussion about the big new, alternative metaphors. I only want to invite you to trace a few of these borders, to see whether they have any merit in defining something that lies inbetween.

We start in Vienna, drive past the oil refinery (core of OMV, one of the biggest Austrian companies, which operates a highly profitable oil and gas network across much of Eastern Europe) and past Vienna airport to reach, just behind the border at kilometer 60, the capital of another EU state - Bratislava. 15 years after the fall of the iron curtain there is still no high-speed train link between the two "twin towns", yet the Viennese don't mind the hussle to reach cheap Slovak shopping malls under familiar logos, or to fly to London and Paris for EUR 25 from Bratislava airport. In return, it's a rather cool thing to rent a flat in Bratislava and commute to Vienna for an Austrian IT salary, as some Slovaks I know do. Of course, finding a loop-hole in the draconian labor laws to do this is not easy.

Just a few kilometres to the south of Bratislava we enter a third EU-state - Hungary, and the border where the iron curtain fell first (applause) to enable easier cycling around the big muddy lake along the border. From a Vienna perspective, cheap dental surgery in the Hungarian border town of Sopron is yet another popular economiser for strained household budgets. Hungarians usually speak German or English, so language is no problem either, and culturally - well, to spot a difference is hard. Some of the worthiest highlights of Austrian cuisine are actually Hungarian (most of the others are from the Balkans and the Czech/Slovak republics). On the Austrian side of this border we find Roma, Sinti, and, guess, Croatian minorities (although we will not encounter a border to Croatia along this little walk).

Slowly, as we reach the southern frontiers, the going gets a bit tough, that is first hilly, then mountaineous, and equally the border folk become a bit, shall we say, needy of benevolent interpretation of their attitudes to the other side. When we're talking about politics in the southernmost province of Carinthia, famously governed by Jörg Haider, it must be said that the outside of the Austrian border (EU-member Slovenia) seems more familiar and likeable than the inside, and maybe some Carinthians might want to consider taking their millenial defense of the Germanic cradle against the massive onslaught of a few thousand minority Slovenians to a more appropriate place, like, say, the moon (I hear the Chinese are accepting seat reservations for single fare tickets in 2025).

Of course, attitudes are quite different as soon as we reach the Italian border, which has always been welcomed by worldly Carinthians as an opportunity to get development aid in fashion and life-style, and to nudge their inferiority complex. Mountains over mountains, we reach the two separated Austrian parts of Tyrol. The missing middle part is in Italy since WWI and houses a significant German-speaking population, equally successful in promoting the tourism industry as their Austrian relatives.

And then it's Switzerland, and a Schengen-border which I think is passed only by tourists and economic refugees from starving Western Austria. Let's not forget Liechtenstein, Austro-Swiss no-man's-land with a population of 20,000, but much fatter numbers in the offshore banking industry. All this is a bit confusing, all the more since the people living in these regions are somewhere between Swiss and Austrian, and their allegiance to Austria rather than Switzerland is more by force than by desire (after WWI, a clear majority would have preferred to switch over).

More Austrian inferiority complexes along the German border, but let's focus on the niceties, for example the Austrian valley which cannot be accessed by road other than from Germany, prints its own stamps and is almost extraterritorial. Germany in this case is actually Bavaria, which makes the neighborship easier and harder at the same time. For example, Tyroleans like to make fun of the catholicism and corruption of Bavarians politics, as if they were any different? Then there is the Austrian border town of Salzburg. I have my doubts about this town in many respects, but I cannot sum them up in five words. It's a place that seems to breed either genius (Mozart, tralalalala) or madness, to put it simply. Or both at the same time. And a place for doing your shopping in Germany, as if it was cheaper there - Nova says it really is. No 3G telephony here, because the radiation kills like nowhere else.

Again the road becomes a bit rough, we pass through woods and very old mountains, jealousy among neighbors. It has often been observed that the relationship between the Austrians and the Czechs is so stormy and at times rupturous (three words: nuclear power plants) because they see themselves in each other, and don't like what they see. From a short trip to Prague, we take the road to the Wild East, and ultimately return to Vienna where the beer is worse, but the dumplings (Knödel not knedlicky) seem to be just as good as the original.

I should mention that in 2003, Austria was a fertile nation. 75,000 babies were born, while a slightly larger number of people will have died. But 45,000 residents were awarded the Austrian citizenship, delivering a robust national demographic plus, and ensuring that many South-Eastern European cultures will continue to enrich this nation from within, in this case without the need for borderstones and crossings.


Weekly terrorism update 

The fact that the leaders of the Spanish terror cell blew themselves up rather than being arrested is bad news. I guess their motivation was to protect their contacts. People who think like that are the worst possible opponents for a democratic state.

The Shiite uprising in Iraq may be even more significant, and is yet another complication where there already are plenty.

In the meantime, CNN's headline is the raid by the US forces on Falluja - eye-for-eye counts more than political significance apparently. One of these moments when the American hegemony with its taste for aggressive backlash is rather depressing.


Meet N'kisi the talking parrot 

N'kisi is a captive-bred African grey parrot, who has allegedly mastered an English vocabulary of 950 words and uses it creatively, as his owner claims. The story has been on BBC news and N'kisi also has a homepage. Experiments have been performed that purportedly show that N'kisi is capable of telepathic communication with his owner, reading from her mind what she is seeing on a picture hidden from his view.

The owner is an artist who has spent many hours every day with the parrot in training (N'kisi is apparently around six years old now), on a science-art project that is trying to break the ground for better "interspecies communication". There is a really impressive audio recording with transcription available.

Something seems fishy, or at least exaggerated here - what? The claims of N'kisi's creativity are unverifiable from the given evidence. Imagine a dumb acoustic pattern recognition system that is exposed to a single human speaker for thousands of hours. The task of the system is to play back audio material it received earlier, depending on the incoming stimulus (it has learned that by fulfilling this task, it can maintain its energy support). The system has some capability of chunking the audio, to break it up into segments based on a measure of relative prominence (energy or frequency distributions in the audio signal), and to reassemble segments with some degree of fuzziness. We also must assume that the system can process visual information and correlate it with the acoustic information in combined chunks. These assumptions suffice, I think, to explain everything that is in the audio recording and in the quoted examples of N'kisis alleged creativity or understanding capability (though it does not explain the telepathy). What seems like creativity are really just memory errors; what seems like understanding is the effect of a very well-trained statistical memory of previous interactions.

On balance, I believe that N'kisi is neither creative nor understands or means what he says. He must still be an amazing pet to have around!


Dying in Politics, amended 

Some dangerous gaps in yesterday's post need to be filled. I only caricatured the way in which past atrocities are dealt with in politics. Of course, the holocaust is not irrelevant after it has occurred, it has a huge moral and political weight. The same is true for occurrences of genocide like in Rwanda or Cambodia. Yet none of these horrible atrocities were devised by a democratic regime that was taken serious by general opinion in its claims to serve the common good. When we condemn these acts, we do this with the awareness that their perpetrators were criminal evil-doers with whom we would not want to engage in dialog. My note of yesterday should only apply to such policies of a political body that I or a sufficiently large part of society consider as potentially well-meaning efforts. An important example would be the air campaign of NATO against Serbia in 1999. Its proponents repeatedly demanded to be judged by the standards of their ethical principles and objectives. We then need to ask ourselves whether the campaign was justifiable based on the cost in terms of human life lost that it would cause. On questions like this I find the forgetfulness about the dead that I wanted to address yesterday.

For the same reason, I believe that Blair's hope that history will forgive the human costs of the invasion of Iraq is mistaken. It seems to operate on an understanding of historical perception as something that is limited to our lifetimes. But for future generations, the people living today will be just as dead as the ones they have killed in various wars or other questionable policies. From the perspective of our successors at least, a fair judgement should and can be expected.

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