Saturday, September 16, 2017

Challenges of marketing

The history of this part of the world can make for unintentional irony in marketing pitches.

This morning I was watching an interview on the subject of who should be in the Pantheon of the National Museum when it is finally reopened (hopefully sometime next year) after a long-overdue reconstruction.

Should it include Julius Fučík,, a journalist, member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and member of the Communist Party? He was placed in the Pantheon after the war (I’m not sure whether his placement was before or after the Communists took full power in 1948), then removed in 1991.

Should it include Emperor Franz Joseph (ruled 1848-1916) and his wife? They’d been placed there sometime during the Habsburg era, then removed in 1918 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell apart and Czechoslovakia was created.

The interview veered onto the topic of how to handle the remains of the communist era that are sprinkled around everyday things, from decorations on building facades to names of streets.

The interviewer compared the Czech situation to Russia where, in his words, they’ve removed the greatest excesses of “socialist realism” but left a lot of things as they were. “Their attitude is, we lived through that history, we shouldn’t negate it.” But it leads to some absurd situations.
I was on the subway in Petersburg and I saw an ad for a bank: “Come take advantage of our amazing interest rate—20% on your deposits. Learn more at our branches. Investors and capitalists, come talk to us at our branch at 21 Dictatorship of the Proletariat Square.” (Rough transcription/paraphrase of part of the interview)
It reminded me of an ad I saw on the subway here in Prague in 2013. A bank was promoting its retirement account, and the text was clearly aiming at young people with perhaps a 40-year horizon until they’d be drawing on their retirement savings. The tenor of the ad was the same as retirement ads anywhere: Plan now (and save with us) so you can retire in comfort.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Who watches the watchers

As I wrote about in an earlier post about goings-on in Prague, the man who’s most likely to be prime minister after next month’s elections is also facing trial for having used fraudulent bookkeeping to get an EU subsidy to a farm/resort he owned.

Last week, parliament debated whether to strip Andrej Babiš and a colleague of parliamentary immunity so that they could stand trial. They voted pretty decisively to do that, but of course not everyone was happy with the whole situation.

Bohuslav Chalupa, a member of Babiš’s ANO party, said:
What happens once the court, say, proves or doesn’t prove Mr. Babiš’s guilt in this affair? What punishment will there be for those who falsely accused him, right before the elections, motivated by ANO’s high popularity? And I mean politically punished as well. Whether for instance the investigator will be dishonorably discharged from the Police of the Czech Republic?
As Respekt comments, Mr. Chalupa is presenting here his idea of independent policy investigation. (“Fokus agenda”, Respekt, Sep. 11 – 17, p. 22)

He’s also illustrating one of my “favorite” types of arguments, one that only works if you assume that you’re right about something else besides the thing you’re arguing. Only he’s not even doing that right.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

(Don't) spread the wealth

On Friday I went for my first stroll across Charles Bridge since we got here.

Sunday noon scene on Charles Bridge
It's one of the iconic experiences of Prague--a Gothic bridge lined with Baroque statues and marked off with watch towers at each end, fabulous architecture lining both sides of the river, and presiding above it all, Prague Castle and the Cathedral of St. Vitus.

It's a key link in the main tourist path: Wenceslaus Square, past the church of St. Gall to Old Town Square with the astrological clock, winding through the twists and turns of Charles St. from Little Square to Charles Bridge, across the bridge to the Lesser Quarter and its square, then up Neruda St. to the castle.
Looking through the portal of the tower on the Old Town end of the bridge
When I lived in Pilsen 26 years ago, I occasionally made it into Prague for an afternoon/evening, and that route was a staple of mine.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Advice for the apocalypse
I’m finally reading Karel Čapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, the play which coined the word “robot,” from the old word “robota,” the labor that a serf owed his lord, the courvée).

The robots in the play aren’t exactly what we think of as machines—rather, they’re made out of some alternative sort of pseudo-living stuff.

But they’re conceived very much like machines. Their inventor wanted to recreate a human in every detail, but his nephew made a business out of it by leaving out everything that was considered unnecessary for work: no emotions, no interest in arts or culture, just a strong and skilled set of hands with a memory beyond the imaginings of the human mind.

The prologue gives the history and the “science” of the play, set in some indefinite future, several decades out from 1920 when Čapek was writing it.

Act I is 10 years later, and the robots are rising up. They’d been armed by humans to fight their wars for them, and now they’ve turned on their masters. On the island where the robots are made, the few men who run the factory are aware of the dire events in the wider world, but they’re trying to keep the information from Helena, the wife of Domin, who runs the factory.

She nonetheless senses something is going wrong, and she summons Alquist, the construction chief at R.U.R. He comes to her room somewhat embarrassed for his work clothes and hands covered with lime and brick dust from having been at work.

HELENA: Oh, tell me, is something going on?

ALQUIST: Nothing really. Just progress.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Babiš and the briar patch

I wrote in my initial report from here about the corruption case surrounding Andrej Babiš.

He’s one of the richest people in post-communist Europe and a member of parliament, and he was the minister of finance until her resigned under the pressure of some apparently incriminating evidence about involvement in corruption.

The police now say they have enough evidence to take him to trial, so they’ve asked the parliament to hand him over for trial by suspending his immunity as a member of that body.

It wasn’t clear whether parliament would go along, but in the end they did, by an overwhelming vote: 123 out of 134 present in favor of suspending Babiš’s immunity, with four against (and apparently 7 abstaining).

For Babiš’s colleague Jaroslav Faltýnek was handed over by a vote of 120 out of 133, with five against.

(The quotes and data here are from Lidové noviny.)

In the parliamentary debate, Babiš’s substantive defense seems to be that the money wasn’t misspent, but was all used for the intended purpose of developing The Stork’s Nest, rather than being stashed away somewhere in Panama. “If I wanted to commit subsidy fraud, there’d be nothing easier than setting up an offshore firm somewhere in Cyprus. Nobody would have traced it there.”

Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do things die?

We begin this episode with a light discussion of the proper terms to use when dogs die, but then progress through the more serious topic of the burkini (trust me, as it’s being discussed here, that is a more serious topic), which leads in turn to choice of allies and ultimately, how we know anything.

The Christian Democratic – People’s Party (KDU-ČSL) is a small party with a relatively committed base among religious Catholics (unfortunately for the party, that’s an elderly and shrinking population). After their disastrous results in the 2010 elections, they chose a new head, a young guy, a veterinarian, Václav Bělobrádek.

A fresh face.

The kind of guy who will scold a woman on Facebook for posting about her sadness that her dog died.

This part gets very tricky to explain, because Bělobrádek is obsessing about the choice among many different words for the end of life, and the punch is in the connotations that each one has for a Czech speaker, because the translations more or less overlap, but I’ll do my best to render his post into English with the appropriate flavor for an English speaker.

The woman described her dog’s passing with the verb “umřít,” which translates as “die / exit / decease / pass away”. From those options, let’s go with “die,” and see what Bělobrádek—a veterinarian—had to say about the matter.
He didn’t die. Only people die. Animals perish, pass on, snuff it (in the case of animals, this doesn’t have a vulgar connotation), drop dead, extinguish, are killed, are cut down … Giving animals human characteristics and applying human terms to them (die, food, eat, take a poop) is modernist, leftist, and liberal, typical of bourgeois eco-ethno-bio scrawny folks with beads around their necks, earings in their noses, belly buttons, and eyebrows, with loose-hanging skirts and drinking tea from a bowl.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thinning the herd

This morning Kate and I went on errands, trying to wrap up some of the school supplies the boys need.

Waiting on the trolley platform with us was an older woman with a cane. When the train came she made her way to the second set of doors and started up the steep steps into the car.

Kate and I had boarded at the front door and were already on when the driver closed the door - on the woman with the cane. She was mostly in, but it seemed like maybe her leg and her cane were still sticking out.

Three or four people near her on the train immediately came to her help, prying the door open to get her the rest of the way in, freeing up the nearest seat, and helping her to it. There were a couple of scornful glances forward in the direction of the driver, but with a sense of "what the hell can you do about it."

The woman seemed to take it in stride, no outward sign of anger at the driver, and clear appreciation for the help from strangers. At first she even seemed to waive off the offer of a seat, but she did end up taking it.

I don't know that this is common, but I know it's not isolated.