Cream and cookie crumble in your tea?

November 25, 2012 Comments Off on Cream and cookie crumble in your tea?

Although the gradual disappearance (near-disappearance, lately) of decent tea from retail across the globe (including once tea-drinking nations like Poland) can be directly linked to absence of major tea internationals — coffee is aggressively pushed by several international companies with good marketing muscle, there is no one capable of championing tea — for a tea-drinker, Starbuck’s entry into the tea business is no reason to celebrate.  Being an American company, they won’t promote tea; they will promote some sort of tasteless Frankestein available in seventeen flavors, including cookie crumble and M&M.  This has a good chance of being the final nail in tea’s coffin.


Needing a coat and finding myself in a little money

November 24, 2012 Comments Off on Needing a coat and finding myself in a little money

Needing a coat and finding myself in a little money I checked out a few top of the line clothing retailers and what I have discovered shocked me:  although prices were indeed as high as I have expected (and even higher:  1385 euros for a mid-level brand trench coat?) the selection and quality were very poor.  Stitching was not any better than at Zara; materials absolute crap (every fur coat I looked at was made with died fur — furriers die inferior fur to hide blemishes and uneven color, in other words, in order to mis-sell crap fur at good fur’s prices); and no one had any sizes: most items were in 2 or 3 middle sizes: if you are tall (or short), tough luck.  I have been noting, and writing about, the progressive decline of quality at the upper end of the market — every market — from housing to food to art — for some years.  But this is ridiculous.  The only option is to have things tailored – which, given the ridiculous prices of these ready-mades (yes, ready-mades, after all), would actually be an economic alternative — if there were any tailors left.  Which there aren’t as everyone has been effectively steered into telemarketing.


October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

I return to Onegin often.  Not on the strength of the love story, as most of you do, I am sure; but on account of the friendship-story:  Onegin, a man from the capital, befriends a local boy; in conversation he lets slip that he finds the boy provincial; over which the boy challenges him to a duel — and dies shot through the head.  In a way this summarizes my relationship with the world:  here I am, the (sorry to sound stuck up, but this is the unadorned truth, the, as it were, facts of life) man of the world — seven languages, life divided between five countries on three continents, a man of vast reading with experience and expertise in several professions and several sciences — and over there is everyone else, lucky to be bilingual, lucky to have lived in two different countries, lucky to have held more than two jobs.  This, it turns out, is not merely a source of misunderstanding but also a source of deep resentment.  My provincial friends (which is, more or less, everybody) will not only often not understand what I am saying, they will also not be explained to.  (There is a Dale Carnegie lesson in this:  play dumb).

Old World films, unlike New World films, are usually not about what they seem to be about

October 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Marco Bellocchio’s film L’Ora del relgione (“Religion Class” or “Religious Education”) is not about religion at all.

How do I know?  I know precisely because there is so much religion in it, far more of it than one would ever find in Rome (complete with Fellini-like evening parties heavily attended by nuns and clerics and Jesus-look alike pilgrims with crowns-of-thorns and crosses wondering casually in the streets) but also because what there is of it is…  so odd — the slick-haired, body-built cardinal in ultra-chic glasses, the beatification campaign run like an electoral campaign complete with printed leaflets and gigantesque martyr-posters, etc.

Predictably, religious types responded to the film with criticism of this oddity as an inaccuracy of presentation; these complaints belong with their other complaint — that there is no God in the film — in the Didn’t Get The Movie file.  The non-religious-types responded with similar degree of incomprehension, mostly shrugging:  God stuff, they said to a man.  But Old World films, like Old World novels — and unlike New World films and novels — are usually not about what they seem to be about.  The Old World peoples call this phenomenon – a kind of illocution — “depth” and those who don’t get it — “shallow”.  (By which they usually mean Americans).

In the best European tradition of never speaking to the central topic, of circumlocution and symbolic representation, the film is about something else altogether:  it is about a man who had hated his mother, who had rejected her with all her foibles (including religion and the church), years after her death having to deal with the fact that his mother continues to influence his life through the people around him.  “I don’t want to speak ill of my mother”, he says several times, reflecting the double prohibition to speak ill of one’s parents or of the dead; it is a prohibition of the society around him, but a prohibition he accepts because it seems decent and moral to him:  and that is precisely the drama.  If you hate your mother, and with reason, then it would be easier to junk the rules about filial piety, the official ideology that there is nothing like one’s mother’s love, and speak up.  If you do not, then you are liable to find the pressure from outside unbearable — “how can you say that about your own mother?”  etc.

To my mind, this is what the film is about: the fact that the world around us sanctifies the mother-child relationship and judges the unfilial child severely as unnatural, perverse; and that a decent child, especially one with his own children, may well like to honor that principle, or at least not contradict it publicly; but what if that decent child has a perfectly valid reason to hate?

In a more general sense, the film is about the difficulty of independence, of choosing one’s own path, against the grain.  This point is made by two symbols — the duel scene which the hero fails (his opponent judges him too inept with foil to be fit for the battle); and the video the hero has been building for himself:  one of the collapse of the Vottoriano (Altare della Patria): a kind of daydream about the collapse of all authority.

What a failed holiday in Spain teaches you about the reasons for Europe’s failure

October 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

It was to be a week spent looking at paintings in the Prado.

Problems began as soon as I started to look for a hotel. From guest reviews on several usually reliable websites I usually book on, I quickly realized that Madrid Hotels were not worth the stars they were awarded; that they tended to be noisy; poorly serviced; and seriously overcharged people for what everywhere else in the world are expected to be included in the room rate: breakfast (anywhere between 12 and 25 euros per person!) and wireless connection (the usual rate being a not-problem free 6 euros PER HOUR). You could say, I suppose, that in the age-honored conquistador manner, Spaniards are into monopoly pricing and rent seeking behavior.

I decided to book an apartment instead. The leading short-term rental agency (Rent4Days) did a minimum amount of work to take a booking, charge my credit card and send me a list of stiff penalties in the event I should cancel. I accepted since other agencies were not prepared to meet me at the premises — they were literally — I am NOT making this up — asking me to go from the airport to their office in one part of town, collect the keys, and then go and let myself into my rented apartment in another part of town. (No, I am NOT making this up).

I booked air ticket on Rumbo, a Portuguese website, who promised to sell it to me for whole 15% cheaper than everyone else. I checked their credit-worthiness and all appeared in order; the airline’s computer system was confirming the existence of the reservation placed through Rumbo; I moved on to pay… only to discover that the 15% discount was BEFORE service charge which — you guessed it — was exactly equal to 15% of the purchase price! But don’t blame the Spaniards for this spot of false advertising. Rumbo is a Portuguese company.

Then about 20 days before my departure, the airline — Iberia — Spanish — wrote to me that my flight schedule has changed and would I please approve it; if I did not, they would of course refund my money for this ticket (which was otherwise not going to be refundable).

I was not happy about the change since the flight changed from early morning to midday robbing me of half a day of sightseeing; but I agreed in principle — what the hell, I was too tired to go out and do it all over again; but being naturally lazy and of procrastinating nature I have failed to confirm my acceptance of the new schedule.

And thank God I did since 4 days later — 16 days before departure — the agent from Madrid (Rent4Days) sent me an email to tell me that the owner of the apartment they had contracted to rent me has sold the unit and therefore it was NOT available; would I care to choose another; otherwise, of course, they will be happy to make a full refund.

Now, that got my goat. Refund? Refund? How about a late cancellation penalty? What kind of business is this Spanish company? They sell me, under threat of cancellation penalties, a product they don’t have? A product whose delivery they cannot guarantee? And they notify me… by email? Were this the United States, this would never happen, of course, but, if by some miracle it did, the president of the company would be kneeling on my doorstep, beating his breast and offering me keys to a rental Porsche made available to me for one week for free in contrition. But Rent4Days… sends an email!

The hell with Spain, I said to myself, told the agent to refund my card (I am still waiting to see how many weeks – or months -that is going to take) and went onto Iberia’s website to refuse the change of schedule. Only to discover that while you can “refuse” online, to ACTUALLY arrange an ACTUAL refund you must ACTUALLY call them. So I called them. On something called a 700 number. That’s the one that’s free — free for Iberia, that is. Yep. You pay 35 cents a minute to Iberia for the privilege of calling, being put in queue, and, after three minutes, getting disconnected. Three times in a row. Don’t imagine for a moment my local phone company will refund that money to me. (“To get a refund for any telephone call to a 700 number, you must contact the owner of that number directly”. Yes, that’s right, that would be… Iberia. Get it?)

I am still trying to get through.

A leg of the trip was to be done on EasyJet, a British discount airline. Worried that a missed connection or a flight cancellation might end up in me not making the flight, I bought at the time of booking a cancellation insurance thoughtfully offered by EasyJet. At the time of sale, EasyJet did not disclose I was buying insurance from — yes, you guessed it – a Spanish company (Mondial Assistance). “You will get the complete policy by email”, the website advised helpfully. An email with that description did arrive in my mailbox. So, I now went to look it up. The attached document did NOT spell out any details. I called Spain. “Oh, no, assisted me the Mondial Assistant assistant: we only cover cancellations due to health reasons or job (i.e. if your boss cancels your holiday for you).” “Are you saying your policy does not cover missed connections or cancelled flights?” “No.” “Are EasyJet misrepresenting your policy on their website?” “I don’t know.” “I will tell them that they do.” Did I really hear her say — or was I only imagining it — “Yes, you do that. There is probably a 700 number for that.”

Except — there isn’t. There is not even a general complaint contact on the EasyJet page. Thanks, Easy Jet, for putting me in touch with a reliable, honest, and helpful Spanish insurer. Guess which discount airliner I am NOT going to book again?

I have to say, after 10 years in America and 20 years in Asia, this Ibero-European form of capitalism seems to be a kind of madhouse. I now know why the continent is in crisis; and, I have to tell you, I find it fully self-inflicted and think they deserve whatever they’ve got coming to them.


Finally, I did get through to Iberia. If you wish to make a refund, there is a 30 Euro cancellation charge. I am NOT making this up. Iberia enters into contract with you whereby they agree to deliver a specified service for a specified fee; then, if they fail to deliver within the terms of the contract and you balk, they charge you a fee for balking. Anything else you want to know?

This is a Denktagebuch

September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

This is not a silva rerum (“commonplace book”).  This is a Denktagebuch.

Arendt isn’t my favorite thinker, but her determination to use an ordinary journal to think — and nothing else but think — is as admirable as it is unique.  She does not write down anything trivial; nor how she feels; only what she thinks.


Do it for the sake of the species

September 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mating system affects population performance and extinction risk under environmental challenge
Agata Plesnar-Bielak, Anna M. Skrzynecka, Zofia M. Prokop and Jacek Radwan

Institute of Environmental Sciences, Jagiellonian University, Gronostajowa 7, 30-387 Krakow, Poland

Author for correspondence (
Failure of organisms to adapt to sudden environmental changes may lead to extinction. The type of mating system, by affecting fertility and the strength of sexual selection, may have a major impact on a population’s chances to adapt and survive. Here, we use experimental evolution in bulb mites (Rhizoglyphus robini) to examine the effects of the mating system on population performance under environmental change. We demonstrate that populations in which monogamy was enforced suffered a dramatic fitness decline when evolving at an increased temperature, whereas the negative effects of change in a thermal environment were alleviated in polygamous populations. Strikingly, within 17 generations, all monogamous populations experiencing higher temperature went extinct, whereas all polygamous populations survived. Our results show that the mating system may have dramatic effects on the risk of extinction under environmental change.

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