Friday, February 26, 2010

Watching the Olympics


I’ve been enjoying the Dutch Olympic coverage on Nederland 1 this week; they do a pretty good job of sticking with events and summarizing results, although the commercial breaks feel long and repetitive.   In Seattle, I used to watch the Canadian coverage because they focused more on events than on manufactured backstory; I like that in the local coverage as well.

The ski-jumping was good, the ice-dancing finally seems to be maturing, I’m holding my breath against someone sustaining a really serious injury in the aerials, and I always enjoy the women’s curling.

A friend suggested that it’s a sure sign of old age when you start thinking the women’s curlers are cuter than the downhill skiers.  But, in my defense, there is the video by the Swedish women’s curling team to consider.

But most of the tweets and e-mails back and forth with folks in the US have been about Sven Kramer.

There was a lot of interest in his early, record-breaking speed skating win in the 5000m race, in his six-foot-plus height, and in his infamous interview with a US reporter (“Are you stupid?”), which got a lot of play on YouTube (now removed at the request of  the IOC).   Supplemental to that last story, I send my personal thanks to the Guardian for asking whether we should be debating the ignorance of American TV reporters or the rudeness of Dutch speed skaters (and for noting that it’s a question of postmodern philosophy). 

But my lines really lit up after Sven’s disqualification in the 10000m race.   It was heartbreaking to see: the coach absolutely and immediately realized his mistake and what it meant, and it was a tragedy for Kramer.I’m glad that Kramer was able to be gracious about it in the end, but the conversations between the two of them afterwards must have been terrible for both.  A bicycling coach blogged a good perspective on it, but I still would have found it unforgivable on a professional level.

“How is this possible!" was De Telegraaf’s headline.

“I wanted to coach him too perfectly,” offered the coach.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Just Be….

Holland (2) …Playful, edgy, fabulous, real, trendy, happy: Holland.

It’s a new promotional campaign, not for the Netherlands, but for the two Dutch provinces of North and South Holland.  Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and the Hague are part of the campaign.

Weekly prize drawings that highlight various “authentic Holland” themes have been running throughout February, awarding, for example, a  Batavus Dutch bicycle or a fresh bouquet of tulips, delivered monthly for a year. 

Lest you question the authenticity of the prizes, you can submit a truly representative photo into the grand prize contest before March 4th.  They will give away two round-trip business class tickets and a four-night stay in Amsterdam, so, it’s worth polishing up a few Carnivale and canal pictures and  having a go.

“Holland is a place where you can truly be yourself”, is the line…I’m already racing through the (many) edgy possibilities.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Musing on class economics

The floodgates have been opened and the Maas river has become muddy and swift as the winter runoff drains north. There’s a whoosh to the current this morning, tugging at the channel markers and swirling around the bridges.  Floating birds are outpacing flying ones.

I’ve been catching up with the news on banking reform; what once seemed to be a similarly irresistible current of reform now seems spent; populist anger has degenerated into fringe movements. 

I’m surprised that there isn’t a more lasting outcry when so many people were directly affected by the problems.

In the US, I lost 20% of home value, 40% of retirement savings.  I’m ready to see someone held to account.  Dutch friends lost their jobs, then their IceSave accounts in a rapid two-step.  Many of my UK friends are struggling for jobs and worrying about their bank stability.

So, why no clamor for more substantive change?

In part, I wonder whether the cause is cultural.  If the pain feels systemic rather than personal and nobody else seems to be making money from the mess,  then it’s hard to point fingers.

The figures on income disparity in the CIA Factbook are shown below and, perhaps, everyone here was more equally affected.  The economic class distinctions are certainly less pronounced here  than the US, so there’s less of a group that’s done well out off the crisis.  This mirrors my experiences: I don’t see wide differences in lifestyle between the Dutch’s wealthy and middle-class people that I’ve seen elsewhere.  I’m sure that the Netherlands is not class-less, but it does feel less so, and may suggest that the pain is more evenly spread.

Yet, even in the US where the differences are more extreme, people don’t protest.  Their strong belief in class mobility may be a factor, the middle class genuinely believes that efforts to rein in the wealthy may limit their own rise.  While there’s a bias against windfall profits, people still believe in individual initiative and won’t penalize those whose riches are perceived to come from hard work.  Only Wall Street bankers have really drawn fire.


Population below poverty line:

  NL: 10.5%      UK: 14%      US: 12%

Income disparity (Gini Index: Number (world rank))

  NL:  30.9 (108)       UK: 34 (92)     US: 45 (43)

Household consumption (percentage share of total spend)

  Lowest 10%     NL:  2.2%    UK: 2.1%    US:  2%

  Highest 10%     NL: 22.9%    UK: 28.5%    US: 30%


In another part, the causes may be rooted in willingness to let the government sort it out.  In the Netherlands, I think that there is a perception that the government has dealt well with the crisis, shrinking banks, holding Iceland to account.  In the US, people simply don’t trust the government and aren’t likely to demand more action from it (witness in the concerns about socializing banking, health care, or automakers).

And, since the NL, UK, and US will all have major elections this year that are likely to change their governments, citizens may feel less reason to demand changes from the present crowd running things.

Of course, it could be that the first blooms of recovery are sprouting as the crisis thaws.  Optimism may return with warmer weather and fatter investment portfolios, yielding a sense that the worst is over without having to make any reforms. 

After all, why fix what no longer seems broken?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Where has philosophy gone?

20100219I’m having a bit of a philosophical week.

‘not the sort of week where I wax philosophical, watching the rain fall while sipping tea, or one where I philosophically accept life’s torments.

No, I’m in a mood to read some philosophy.

I started back in graduate school, picking up Durant’s Story of Philosophy, liking the way that philosophers questioned life’s basic assumptions and tackled hard human questions about truth, beauty, the conscious mind, an ethical life.

Lately, I’ve haunted college bookstores looking for fresh works that addressing questions of our time, but have, surprisingly, come up empty.  There’s no lack of classical philosophy, but nothing new.

In search of a school or a movement, I scanned through the course offerings of philosophy departments.  Journals. Conferences?  TED Talks?


There’s a suggestion that the post-modernist movement has taken the mantle, but its tenants (there are no new ideas to be invented; today's ideas really just borrowed from previous times) only reinforces my fear that philosophy is dead.

I don’t think that philosophy has gone away or become irrelevant.  But where has it gone?

Comic original to Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal