Archive for May, 2011

Baseline Service

May 31, 2011

Until quite recently, the images that came to mind when Lunghu heard the phrase “Russian tennis players” were something along the lines of Anna Kournikova, Maria Sharapova, Vera Zvonareva, Maria Kirilenko, etc.  And who can blame him?  Lunghu certainly wasn’t thinking of Comrade Bear … and Cub.

But somebody else was!

Two guys, one racquet. What can this mean?

Posters showing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wearing white polo shirts and [tennis] shorts, were put up on Sunday night near the central Moscow TsUM department store. 

The posters –stylized as ads for the department store’s spring/summer 2011 campaign– show President Dmitry Medvedev holding a tennis racket, while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is empty-handed and looking slightly pained. Their pristine outfits have monograms “M” and “P” on the chests.  … Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, called the posters “clearly commercial” and “bordering on hooliganism.

Not so fast, Dimi!!

The TsUM department store denied any connection to the posters.
“We would like officially to state that TsUM department store has no relation to this advertising, and using (the) TsUM trademark in this case is illegal,” the store said in a press release.

After all the fuss, the posters’ creator was eventually unveiled: a member of a Moscow art group who proclaimed (anonymously, from a safe distance):

“I took the two most famous people in our country … who are completely isolated from the world of fashion and showbusiness,” the artist wrote.
“We usually see Putin and Medvedev buttoned-up and I wanted to show them as fashionable, relaxed guys who follow trends and have an active way of life.”

Although one news account remarked that “neither leader has expressed particular enthusiasm for tennis,” Lunghu seems to recall an instance in (mid-)August 2009 when Putin and Medvedev played a round of Sochi badminton in full view of the camera’s unblinking eye.  But only because Rahm Emmanuel insisted …

On His Every Word

May 29, 2011

Hang in there, Muammar!  Just a few more days to go!  As long as the sunrise in Tripoli on June 1st finds you alive, Lungu can claim a Pyrrhic victory in his over/under bet.  After that, all bets are off!

Swords Into Plowshares

May 26, 2011

Two weeks ago, Thailand marked the beginning of its rice-growing season with the Royal Plowing Ceremony, a centuries-old ritual rich with omen and celestial portent.  Last week, Cambodia followed suit –although with starkly different soothsaying results.  The Khmer oxen ate from plates containing corn [maize] and beans, but ignored the rice platter.  Not a good sign for paddymen and their families.  Of course, this isn’t the first time that Thais and Khmer have had differences of opinion.

In the colder regions of North Asia, the rice-growing season usually starts later.  In the DPRK, the Dear Leader’s mastery over everything (including Mother Nature herself) didn’t delay the rice-planting schedule:  mechanized swamp-buggies performed their rice-planting ritual for domestic and international media observers shortly after the Thai ceremony occurred.  It’s understandable that North Koreans would want to get a headstart on the countdown to harvest … so that every mouth can beeeeee fed.

In South Korea, no such worries.  On Thursday, President Lee Myung-bak –still smarting from regional legislative elections that saw his governing GNP badly bruised in key areas of the peninsula– himself took the wheel of a rice-planter and performed his ceremonial role.  In Korea, presidents are constitutionally limited to one term (a legacy of/reaction to the Park Chung-hee era), so Lee’s participation in the ritual was not aimed at enhancing his personal political prospects.  Instead, it can be more clearly understood as his cultural obligation in his role as leading patriarch-figure/dynastic-crypto-monarch of a Neo-Confucian society.

As usual, there are additional layers of meaning within and behind the overt [en]action.  Here are some of the cultural strata beneath the rice paddy surface:

Subject:  In the Confucian social hierarchy of virtue and value, the farmer holds second rank, directly beneath the scholar-nobles whose adherence to ritual makes society sustainable.  Farmers merit the second rank because they grow the food that enables everyone else to live.  The ritual performance of farm tasks by the scholar-sovereign re-emphasizes the links and relationships that bind together society’s ranks (as well as the precedence implicit in hierarchical order).  The fact that Lee alone appears in these pictures is an indication that –as sovereign– he alone is in charge and ultimately responsible for carrying out the will of Heaven.

Location:  The chosen (;) rice paddy is located in Chunju, North Chungcheong Province, close to the geographic center of the ROK nation.  Symbolism is one thing, but political pragmatism is another:  North Chungcheong Province is a key swing district in national elections because its political loyalties are rather evenly divided between the GNP (whose core support is in the southeast) and the Democratic Party (primarily based in the southwest provinces).  If your party wants to elect the next president of Korea, you need North Chungcheong votes.

Garb:  President Lee is wearing a dark blue windbreaker (with what appears to be the presidential logo & his title) over a buttoned-up white golf shirt.  The sleeves of the windbreaker are neatly rolled up, and he’s wearing white cotton work gloves as he loads trays of rice seedlings onto the rice-planter hoppers.  He’s also sporting a broad brimmed straw hat.  This clothing may convey several messages.

1]  The windbreaker and golf shirt are Lee’s uniform-of-choice for settings in which it is inappropriate (too high-status) to wear the business suit, which he prefers. (As a side note, Lee caught flak from some quarters earlier this year when he wore traditional Korean costume to deliver his televised New Year’s message to the nation.)  Prior to becoming mayor of Seoul, Lee’s professional background was in the construction industry:  the windbreaker/shirt/tie combination is standard management attire for ceremonial urban construction site visits.  When travelling even further afield into the rural countryside, the necktie is too much for a man-of-the-people to be seen wearing.

2]  White cotton gloves with rubberized, no-slip grip on the palms and fingers are in widespread use by manual laborers of all kinds throughout Korea.  For all Lunghu knows, their use may even be required by workplace safety regulations for certain occupations.  So at the very least, Pres. Lee is conforming to workplace cultural expectations and practices.  At the same time, white gloves = clean hands.  Several of Lee’s political associates have been embroiled in bribery scandals of various kinds (it’s an occupational hazard of Korean politics, and that’s what aides are for).  President Lee is keeping his hands clean.

3]  For centuries, a broad straw hat fastened under the chin with a simple silk cord was traditional headwear for yangban nobility and scholars who traveled to the countryside to visit tenant farmers on their agricultural estates.  A badge of rank (and the quality of their robes) distinguished them from commoners and slaves.  Lee’s hat is of modern design, but carries echoes of the past into the present day.

Technology:  Lee is driving a DaeDong compact tractor (Duo60 model) with a rice-planter attachment.  DaeDong (Great East) produces tractors, combines, rice transplanters and tillers.  The company sells its tractors in the USA under the Kioti (pronounced “coyote“) brandname.  DaeDong Industrial Company Ltd, which is based in Daegu, South Korea, was founded in 1947.  Back in the day, Daegu was part of the Silla Kingdom.  Now, the city of Daegu is has special administrative status as a Metropolitan City located within North Gyeongsang Province.  North Gyeongsang is the heartland of Lee’s GNP, and Daegu is party headquarters.  The choice of tractor is a little shout-out to the homies in Daegu.  Plus ça change

These four aspects of the rice-planting photo op are hidden in plain sight.  Video footage might show even more, and wider shots that included other Koreans in the frame could add further information.  But GNP media wranglers may not have wanted to muddle the message:  President Lee is the learnéd sovereign, he diligently works to improve the lot and lighten the burden of the common man, and thus he carries out the mandate of Heaven.  In difficult times, the people need a simple, familiar message.

Just in case anyone was wondering, Lunghu is not aware of any Korean soothsayers who published predictions about the Korean rice harvest based on the outcome of President Lee’s ceremonial excursion across the Chunju rice paddy.  But some of those crop rows he’s leaving in his wake look a little bit askew … it’s clear that you need a steady hand to guide the wheel of a Daedong tractor.

The Phase That Launched 1000 Shifts

May 22, 2011

For the past few hours, in various ways, the state of Montana has been trying to catch Lunghu’s attention. (That, or it’s some woman named Helena.)

Duly noted:  Lunghu is now on full Missoula Alert.  Whatever that means.   Let’s hope that the impending news –whatever it is– will be good.

Is it just this?

It would be easier to list places in Eastern Montana that are not swamped with floodwaters.
“We’ve got flooding in every county,” said Tom Humphrey, lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Billings.

However, in a multilingual world, Lunghu also has to take into account the possibility that ‘Montaña’ is actually speaking español.  Maybe Lunghu’s attention needs to be directed further south:

The Telica Volcano in the Department of Leon has entered a period of activity and should be watched carefully, according to Alejandro Rodriguez, head of the Nicaraguan Institute of Territorial Studies (INETER). “The Telica Volcano is showing strong seismic activity, which indicates that there is movement of magna.” he said. [Rodriguez added] that the volcano has been active for about 500 years but has never had a cataclysmic eruption, but said, “I couldn’t assure you that nothing will happen; so the best thing is to take precautions.”  Telica’s last violent eruption was in 1948 with milder activity in 1994 and 1999.

credit: Stephanie Wong

Update sometime soon?

Capital C is for Car-acas

May 22, 2011

The next time one of your knuckle-draggin’, Hummer-drivin’, right-leanin’, petrovore colleagues starts whining at the watercooler about the repressive regime of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, tell him it’s time to get a grip   –or better yet, just STFU.  Because Venezuela is the only country Lunghu knows of where the most fundamental of citizens’ rights  –the “right” to drive an automobile–  is legally protected.  Take that, Saudi Arabia!

This civic right is so sacrosanct that Venezuela …

where gasoline is almost free … troublesome highway rules are rarely imposed [and] testing of drunk drivers is virtually unknown … has suspended a bus driver from the roads for a year in the first case of a suspended license in the nation.  Ramon Parra, 41, [was] driving at excessive speed in a large, overladen passenger bus that was missing one of its rear wheels.

“It is important to emphasize that this is a totally new act; for the first time in Venezuela we are suspending a driving license, for 12 consecutive months,” national police chief Luis Fernandez told reporters.

That’s right, this was the first driver’s license EVER suspended ANYWHERE in Venezuela — in its entire history!   Venezuela’s first law allowing authorities to suspend drivers’ licenses was introduced in 2008 [by that repressive Chavez regime] but had not been used until now.

So why did the Chavez government wait three years before suspending a driver’s license?   Cynics might claim that Chavez was too busy suspending the TV broadcasting licenses of his political adversaries to bother with mere motorists, but Lunghu knows that El Presidente has been distracted by personal matters:  he’s been very concerned about the health of faraway friends.

... happier days.

However, even in troubled times, Venezuela has a lot going for it.  Let’s review:

  • majestic mountains, mighty rivers, and tranquil beaches
  • beautiful women
  • wildly diverse flora and fauna
  • 12-month beisbol season
  • bountiful oil reserves
  • extensive mineral deposits
  • high-quality rum, chocolate, and coffee

Of course, there are also the negatives:

  • widespread poverty
  • skewed social class structure
  • persistent violent crime
  • deeply-embedded gun culture
  • machismo (see above)
  • hot, humid climate
  • voracious insects, poisonous snakes, ferocious jaguars, pestilential jungle diseases

All in all, this sounds like just the sort of place you’d want to call home –if you happen to be a Texan.  That must explain why US oilmen seem to have a recurrent urge to incite regime change in Simon Bolivar‘s homeland.   Or maybe it’s something else … like the “association” to which both they and Venezuela’s business elite belong.

Littoral Translation

May 17, 2011

Everybody’s favorite Hashemite, King Abdullah of Jordan, is visiting Washington, DC to meet with President Obama and SecState Clinton.   The King was educated in Britain, so he understands the value of polite understatement in conveying a broad hint.   However, Americans (particularly in Congress) don’t always get the message unless it’s spelled out in unequivocal terms.  Especially if US media doesn’t even bother to report King Abdullah’s visit (now why might that be?).   So, as a public service, Lunghu will provide a no-nonsense translation of the King’s diplomatically-phrased remarks:

HM Abdullah:
“We’re here in Washington to not only talk about our bilateral relations and the challenges that we face in the Middle East, but also this Arab Spring,” Abdullah said.
“That is a challenge for all of us to hopefully get it right and the role of the United States is going to be crucial how the Middle East moves in what direction.”

Lunghu’s translation:
“It’s your choice:  Israeli regime-change or democratically-elected Islamist governments with broad popular support in hostile Arab states.”

The body language says it all. credit: Karen Bleier

[Choose wisely, grasshopper.   It’s long past time to put the interests of the nation above those of your sworn pseudo-brothers.]

Say it Ain’t So, Mo!

Lunghu is sorta/kinda hoping that Muammar Ghaddfi can hang on for just a fortnight more:  June 1st is the finish line for Lunghu’s over/under bet on Libyan regime longevity, so even one minute past midnight would put his wager in the money.   But it ain’t lookin’ good.   According to Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini:

“Messages are starting to arrive from the inner circle of the regime.” … Close aides to Ghaddafi have said he is looking for an ”honorable exit” and ”a place where it is possible to retire in a dignified way and disappear from the political scene.”

Lunghu has been wondering where in the world Ghaddafi would be welcome as an exile.  He’s heard there’s a nice seafront villa sitting vacant near Sochi …

Quel Horreur

May 14, 2011

Looks like Dominique Strauss-Kahn won’t be moving into the Elysee Palace anytime soon.  And it looks like the Grande Orient de France is gonna need another candidate frontman in the upcoming French presidential election.

So much for those plans to replace the dollar as global benchmark currency.  Who wants to try next?

Blog Post Writes YOU

May 14, 2011

It’s not easy being Comrade Bear.  Your principal adversary gets to watch his navy’s elite commandos gun down the world’s most-wanted terrorist on nightvision video via realtime satellite uplink from the other side of the globe, but what does Vladimir Putin get?   He gets Lada.   Adding insult to injury, Russian automotive technology then lives up to its reputation while the media watches.

Putin confidently got into the driving seat of the new Lada Granta for a testdrive with Avtovaz’s top management. The atmosphere changed however when Putin turned the keys in the ignition and the vehicle’s engine failed to start. And then again. And again. And again.  Only on the fifth attempt and after a few helping words from Avtovaz chief executive Igor Komarov in the passenger seat did Putin manage to roar finally off into the distance.

That Bear-in-the-headlights look ...

Putin [later] explained that he was unaware that the new model had an electronically-actuated accelerator pedal and he did not need to press too hard.

The Lada’s manufacturer, AvtoVaz, is the largest carmaker in Russia.   Renault has a 25 percent stake in the company, so a slightly upscale model of the Lada Granta (costing 250,000 rubles) will be offered with a Renault engine and a Nissan automatic transmission.   But in a country as big as Russia, it’s size that really matters:

“Look how big the trunk is, it’s so big you could get two sacks of potatoes in there,” [Putin] said in typical earthy style.

Brings back memories ...

With a bit of effort, you could probably fit the corpses of one or two beefy Russian auto executives in there [maybe not in one piece, though].   The sacks of potatoes can go on the back seat.   It’s a four-door sedan, after all.

The Road to Damascus

There’s a silver lining in every cloud, as the saying goes.   So although mundane matters may not be going Comrade Bear’s way, he might instead be reaping benefits on the spiritual plane of existence.   A few weeks ago, Putin himself invoked the spirit of St. Francis, but …

A founder of a religious cult glorifying Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin believes that the powerful premier is the reincarnation of Saint Paul.  The sect, founded by Mother Fotinya, is based in Bolshaya Elnya village in Nizhny Novgorod region.

Certain career parallels appeared too obvious to ignore.   Here are two versions of Mother Fotinya’s translated remarks.   Let the reader decide which better suits the “spirit” of the story:

“According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle was a military commander at first,” [Fotiyna said].  “In his days in the KGB, Putin also did some rather unrighteous things. But once he became president, he was imbued with the holy spirit, and just like the apostle, he started heading his flock,” she said.

“According to the Bible, Paul the Apostle used to be a warlord and the fierce persecutor of Christians, and then he began preaching the Gospel. Putin also was not a saint during his service in the KGB. But when he became president, the Holy Ghost descended on him,” Fotinya was quoted as saying.

Putin’s spokesman earned every kopeck of his pay as he adroitly walked a fine line in commenting about the sect:

“This is the first I’ve heard of such a religious group,” Dmitry Peskov said.  “It is impressive that they think so highly of the prime minister’s work,” he added.
“But I would like to recall another of the ten commandments: thou shalt not worship false idols,” Peskov said.

the perfect angle ...

Lest anyone prematurely conclude that all this adulation might overcome Comrade Bear’s natural modesty and unduly inflate his ego, let’s keep things in perspective:

One of the most well-known sects in Russia has its base near the Siberian town of Abakan, where thousands of people, both Russian and foreign, worship a former provincial traffic policeman, Sergei Torop, as the second coming of Christ.

Can I get an “Amen”?

A Puzzlement Within A Mystery

May 13, 2011

Commodity speculators seeking to diversify their “softs” portfolios beyond the usual trio of CSW (corn, soybeans & wheat) might benefit from the latest investment news from Thailand.  Crops estimates are forecasting a banner year for Thai harvest yields in the 2011 rice season.   So it might be a good idea do bulk up your short positions in Asian rice markets or build some fancy three-legged-straddle investment structures.

But wait –before you mortgage the bayou and phone your broker– there’s one slight catch.  The Thai rice crop prediction isn’t exactly USDA-grade information.  Instead …

Bountiful rice yields, an abundance of food, a fair amount of water and thriving foreign trade, were predicted for the coming crop year by soothsayers at the Royal Ploughing Ceremony at Sanam Luang yesterday.

The annual ceremony has been performed in Thailand for approximately 700 years to mark the beginning of the traditional rice planting season.  It is likely that this cultural practice was originally borrowed from China:  for centuries, emperors in China, Korea and Japan all performed similar ceremonies at the begininng of each growing season.   In the days of the god-king/emperor, this was of course a religious ceremony as well as a civic ritual.

On behalf of His Majesty the King, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn presided over the ceremony, accompanied by His Royal Consort HRH Princess Srirasm, and HRH Princess Bajrakitiyabha.  Two sacred white oxen, named Phra Ko Fah and Phra Ko Sai, were taken to plough the ceremonial ground at Sanam Luang, herded by Agriculture and Cooperatives Permanent Secretary Chalermporn Pirunsarn in the role of Lord of the Plough.  Mr. Chalermporn was accompanied by four kuharb plough-assistants.
The kuharb thong (golden carrier) maidens were Duenpen Jaikong, of the Queen Sirikit Department of Sericulture, and Sornchanok Wongprom, an engineer attached to the Fisheries Department.  The kuharb ngern (silver carrier) maidens were Siriluck Somsakul, an accountancy specialist from the Royal Irrigation Department, and Jessadaporn Sathapattayanont, of the Agricultural Extension Department.

Okay, okay, but what about those predictions?

The oxen were offered seven dishes to eat: grass, paddy [rice], maize [corn], sesame seeds, soybean, water and liquor.   The oxen ate grass, which led to a forecast that the country would enjoy an average water supply, plentiful rice yields, and an abundance of fruits and staple foods this year.   The oxen also drank liquor, yielding a prediction that communications would be convenient, foreign trade would flourish and the economy would prosper.

Best news of all??  There’s an election coming up in Thailand.  All the candidates  –of whatever party–  can now safely run on a campaign platform of prosperity and plenty.

Right day, wrong peninsula

May 12, 2011

Lunghu knows something about the perils of seismic prognostication, so he entirely sympathizes with the late Raffaele Bendandi.  This is the “self-taught Italian seismologist” who  –decades in advance(!)–  predicted that a cataclysmic earthquake would strike Rome on May 11, 2011.

[Bendandi] believed earthquakes were the result of the combined movements of the planets, the moon and the sun. … In 1923 he forecast a quake would hit the central Adriatic region of the Marches on January 2 the following year.  He was wrong by two days but his nearly precise prediction won him the nickname “earthquake predictor” in the media.

Naysayers, including those who uncharitably characterize Bendandi as a “pseudoscientist” or “self-proclaimed scientist,” predictably scoffed at the purported prophecy.  In the run-up to May 11, skeptical U.S. media relied on authoritative expertise to debunk the Bendandi prediction:

Tom Parsons, a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) noted that “A lot of things have been tried [for earthquake prediction] … but none of these have turned out to be reliable.”

Of course, predicting an earthquake on any given day is a fairly certain proposition when you’ve got the entire globe to work with.   It’s a bit like claiming that a shooting will occur on a particular hot summer day in Newark, NJ:  it’s just about bound to happen somewhere, sometime during that 24 hour period.   So really, the “only” difficult aspect of the earthquake prediction business is the specific combination of timing and location, location, location.   No problem!

source: El Pais

So, can the shade of Bendandi claim vindication with Wednesday’s earthquake in Lorca, Espana?   Perhaps it’s too early to tell:  it might be wiser to adopt a wait-and-see attitude …

Another [modern-day] faction of Bendani’s disciples said Bendani had never pinpointed May 11, 2011 as the date for the big one.  [Instead,] they said that according to the positions of the planets, the actual earthquake [that will devastate Rome] would occur on April 6, 2521.

Be sure to let me know how that turns out.

credit: Pedro Almestre