I'm heading out of town to spend the holidays in the mountains with Jim and his lovely wife Misha. I'd give you your Christmas presents now, except you've all been rotten little brats and don't deserve any. See you next year.


That's no dragon, that's my wife

Those who are familiar with Czech media are aware of how entertaining CTK's attempts at English-language headlines can be. But I think the Jakarta Post has them beat today with Komodos from Indonesia capture Czech President at Prague Zoo.

Sadly the headline simply isn't accurate, but the truth is almost as good -- for as the lede tells us, "Indonesia's Komodo dragons -- the world's rarest and largest lizard species -- recently captured the heart of the Czech Republic's President Vaclav Klaus."

And they said the president loved no one but himself.

Oh, this is a good idea¡



So like I heard this dude was on the radio and I was struck by two things: 1) His middle name is Fabius, and 2) he claims he stopped saying 'dude' when he finished grad school.

I like to think that I first started saying 'dude' out of irony. I mean, unless you're Doug, you probably started saying 'dude' after you heard Jeff Spicoli say it. If you're like me, you started using it in irony because you were definitely not the type of dude who said 'dude'. Or so you thought.

All this reminds me of something I call 'the dude shake', but which seems to be better known as 'the homey handshake' (which, I must say, sounds more hygienic). I'm sure some of you are familiar with it: One common variant begins like a normal handshake, but then the participating dudes press their thumbs together, wrapping their four remaining fingers around the back of the other dude's hand, before sliding their palms past each each other and hooking fingertips. They then bring their thumbs and index fingers together in a pinching motion as if to pass a doobie, raise the phantom spliff to their lips and drag on it. You've done this. You can be ashamed of it, but you've done this.

A couple years ago I was speaking with a young American lawyer at a cocktail party. After several drinks, it came to time to take our leave, and we found ourselves in mid-homey handshake (on second thought, that doesn't sound very hygienic either). Since then I've had the untested hypothesis that any (American?) man under the age of, say, 45 is susceptible to the, erm, aforementioned handshake and, regardless of his station in life, will reciprocate if you press your thumb against his.

I think of this as I notice the Czech Republic's business and political leaders getting younger and younger. Surely the handshake described above didn't permeate the same age level in Czech society, but if I ever get to shake hands with Stanislav Gross or Martin Jahn, I'll let you know.


Do I have to smack you?

I was relieved to read in this entry on a Fistful of Euros that I’m not the only one who’s an utter klutz at cheekshaking. Years ago I found the kiss-hello and kiss-goodbye thing charming; now I’m just irritated by it.

Those Czechs who kiss with grace are either motivated by genuine sentiment (even better if shared by the other party) or they’re adept at faking it – which sorta makes them whores, when you think about it. I notice the Czechs tend to actually touch cheeks, while Americans, to pick on one nation, who adopt the custom tend to leave a couple inches between their faces. Personally, I like to nip at their ears.

Een my neyteef kontry, we’re a little more reserved with the physical contact. The only people who shake your hand are a) politicians, but only in a campaign year, b) preachers, but reluctantly, and c) bankers. (There is a growing trend to set aside a few seconds in the middle of worship services for congregants to shake hands with those seated near them – after which they can go back to pointedly ignoring each other.) Cheek-kissing is widely viewed as unclean, except among married couples in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

Physical contact among adult family members in Missouri is also frowned upon. My own family has made some progress, for lack of a better word, in this area, although we’re really bad at it. We try to embrace and shake hands at the same time. A more natural Missouri variant of the kiss-hello is simultaneously nodding your head once and waving two or three fingers from the steering wheel or side mirror as you drive past one another. Many believe this is how Jesus greeted his neighbors.

In the end, I say keep it real. If you really feel like getting cheek to cheek, by all means; you may want to consider the other person’s feelings in the matter, however. I, for one, promise never to be hurt if you don’t kiss me hello or goodbye; I’m more likely to be freaked out at your presumption, you harlot. So please don’t take offence if I extend a hand instead of a cheekbone. Or if I just nod and raise a finger or two.

More bang for your crown

ČTK and ČT1 reported yesterday on the release of the National Report on the Control of Arms Exports. (The Foreign Ministry posts the report here, god love ’em.)

Representatives of Amnesty International and Transparency International pointed out that the country violates EU codes by exporting weapons to human rights abusers. ČTK has Barbora Pechotova of TI singling out Colombia, Georgia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka; ČT1 draws attention to Czech arms exports to Algeria, Columbia, Congo, Indonesia and, erm, Israel. Deputy Foreign Minister Jan Winkler said that the arms export process is thoroughly vetted, but that was really hard – like math is hard – to make sure more-or-less legitimate buyers in, say, Colombia don’t turn around and sell the guns to, say, paramilitaries.

The Czech Republic used to export more military material than it imported, but that changed in 1999 – the year the country joined NATO and started kicking tires on (sing along with Nena) super high-tech jet fighters. In 1993, the Czechs imported EUR 37 million in material; last year, they imported more than EUR 120 million.

In 2003, the Czechs sold EUR 82.9 million worth of bang – mainly light arms like the Skorpion. ČTK says the countries interested in such weapons include Bulgaria, Indonesia, and 'Arab and Latin American countries'.


Terrorism, my eye

You know how you like to freak people out by shining one of those little laser pointers in their windows at night? Well you might want to stop, and not just because it's tired and immature.

First read this NYT story and/or this earlier LAT story. Does anyone think the military, or for that matter intelligence or diplomatic agencies, don't lie frequently? Aside from recent events, why would they even bother?

Thing is, they don't need to go so far as to plant bogus stories in the media; they can simply issue a genuine press release (which is nonetheless utterly unsubstantiated horsehit) to the AP and, presto, the nonsense has instant credibility around the world from Sydney to Prague. Of course, the AP aren't the only ones guilty of spreading manure, but they're good at it.

But to address the lasertag terrorists, a couple questions:
* How difficult is it direct a laser beam into the cockpit of an airliner that's flying a couple hundred miles an hour with enough accuracy to blind the pilot and the co-pilot, causing the plane to crash? That is, assuming the pilots are even flying the plane at all?
* By asking the above question, am I engaged in terrorist activity?

Update [15.12]
Well why didn't they say so?
Brendan I. Koerner explains.


Yes, but you're not authentically wasted

As a sometime contributor Time Out Prague, I got a kick out of Elisabeth Eaves' piss-take on Time Out Andalucía. Hope she never finds my book.


Ah, to je svoboda!

I recently had my bedroom floor refinished. When I moved in here a little over a year ago, the floor was covered by a butt-ugly grey tarpaulin that the landlord insisted was a carpet. This had been dumped on top of a strata of linoleum that dated from the Cretacious period. Under that was a parquet floor.

Why would anyone want to cover up ornamental flooring? Painting the ceiling? Temporary feeding lot for a small herd of angus? Extended glaciation?

Most people are loathe to get scratches on their floor; hence bačkory. But the landlord's fear of scratches is positively pathological. My hallway, for example, has a painted concrete floor -- no lino, no tile, just concrete, with a runner carpet down the middle. The runner is there (was there -- it's now rolled up in a corner) presumably to prevent scratching of the paint. The paint is there presumably to prevent scratching of the concrete.

The landlord has covered an alarming percentage of the surfaces in my flat with contact paper -- a wardrobe, a vanity desk, kitchen counters and the tiled surfaces in the bathroom. Let me say that again: the tile in my bathroom is covered with contact paper.

Anyway, I suggested when I moved in that, gee, it sure would be great to see that wooden floor all prettied up and shiny. The landlord's silence lasted about nine months until I suggested that I'd like to resurface the floor myself. He said no friggin way, but that if I wanted it done, he'd get it done by professionals. Sounds reasonable, I thought. I'm a devout amateur myself, but I understand the respect many people have for professionals and their gear.

I asked if the floor could be done last summer while I was in Karlovy Vary. No friggin way, the landlord said -- he and the family would be at their country home. I sucked it up and proposed November, when I would be in the US. Agreed.

So before I left, I moved all the furniture out of the bedroom. The landlord was very concerned that the painted concrete floor in the hallway be protected from scratches when the floor professionals arrived with their gear, so he gave me about a square meter of thin cotton rag to cover the hall floor with.

When I returned to Prague, I had a lovely parquet floor in my bedroom. Jeff, who had helped me move the furniture out of the bedroom also helped me bring it back in. It became clear in the process he's picked up a little of the landlord's pathology about scratches, to the extent I think he was hallucinating. 'Is that a scratch?' he asked more than once. 'Did we do that? Oh shit.' Then he proceeds to use my dishwashing sponge to remove phantom scratches from the new floor. (But hey, what are friends for?)

Now I feel perfectly free to do as I please with the floor. I drag furniture across it. I spill drinks on it. I let the dog walk on it. It's a floor. But I imagine the landlord looking at it at some point in the future and shedding a tears of rage when he sees the wear and tear of ordinary living before burying the parquet again under an avalanche of linoleum and carpeting.

I saw this letter to the Times this morning, and I thought 'What a concept: to be able to walk around without ID.' Doug wrote about this some time ago. And for all my complaining about the US, citizens there can still, often, for the time being, walk around without fear of being fined fifty bucks for not carrying a federal ID card.

'But if a policeman stops you in the street, how does he know you are truthfully identifying yourself?' He doesn't. In a free society, the line between security and freedom can become very fine. I'm not free to commit random acts of violence, for example, but I am free to walk down the street without proof that I don't go around committing random acts of violence.

Of course, without such controls, random acts of violence will occur. Without a manky grey carpet, I will get scratches on my floor. I'd sooner see the floor.


It’s not just the economy, stupid

Give a listen to this NPR report. It really does matter what foreigners think about US policy.

See, when the US runs up a huge budget deficit fighting wars by itself, it has to borrow money to pay its bills. And since the US has a trade deficit with the rest of the world, much of that money has to come from foreign banks. Those lenders see a pariah dollar, a huge budget deficit, and an administration that likes to throw billions down holes like Iraq, ergo, they’re less likely to lend money. So the dollar falls further, interest rates go higher, and the economy sinks lower. Add to this the aggravating factor of soaring prices for oil – a commodity we’re burning plenty of in, you guessed it, Iraq.

Naturally you would hope that life, liberty, etc are more important than a weak currency, big deficit or the price of oil. But when the US exhausts its diplomatic, financial and military resources on a fool’s errand in Iraq, life, liberty, etc lose their defender.