Best of 2006

I don't like year-end reviews, but for this one, I'll make an exception. First, because it's made by my preferred German language daily newspaper, and second because it's in a 7x12 matrix format. I like tables! The rows are German literature, foreign literature, history, contemporary analysis / philosophy, art, architecture & design, art music, on stage, movies, pop & jazz, institutions, people and the columns contain evaluations exceptional, classical, surprising, rediscovered, avant-garde, funny, annoying.

I am not sure whether I should be pleased or disconcerted about the fact that several of the tabled items have been discussed on this blog during the year ... at any rate, Happy New Year to you & your family, dear Reader, and thanks for all your comments and contributions during the past year!


No, Prime Minister

If you are interested in all things happening on the Fairest Isle, this is for you! 10 Downing Street has opened its door to virtual visitors. The rooms do in fact very much look like those we already know from the famous TV serial. One wonders whether they were shot on location?


Aunt Emmi

This post is in loving memory of my late great-aunt Emmi. She was a robust woman who died a few years ago in her nineties, but her memory is still with us every day - during the cold season. She was an avid knitter, you see. Right on time for every Xmas, we received a huge parcel choke-full of hand-knitted socks and jumpers and one bar of chocolate each. Naturally, I was far more interested in the chocolate back then, but nowadays those hand-knitted socks of hers have their great comeback. Her colour scheme never was beyond doubt, I agree, and with the jumpers, it was outright criminal. Or perhaps it's just beyond all reasonable doubt ... anyway, whoever cares about the colour scheme when the socks are comfortable & warm is just envious! So, I'll beg your pardon in advance if my quirky choice of socks might offend your eye these days. Which reminds me of stupid Prince George's famous words in Blackadder: "Socks are like sex: tons of it about, and I never seem to get any!"

Reason's Greetings

In line with my favourite English language newspaper's current promotional slogan, I finally got round to reading this comprehensive, yet somewhat contrarian piece on the New Atheism. It is probably in reaction to the ascendancy of religious fundamentalism that there have been some topical publications which now serve as focal points for the New Atheist movement called The Brights.

Personally I harbour strong sympathies towards that movement, although I accept some people's need to hedge against the negligible, but non-zero probability of god's existence. However, I wouldn't go as far as to reject the approach on that ground, as the article's author does in conclusion. My biggest problem with it is the apparent doctrinary approach, which brings it into the vicinity of another neo-movement. Combine that with the contingency of faith's reality and you have a recipe for failure. It is much more promising to just let the idea quietly run its course. The genie of Reason is out of the lamp ...

P.S. It just crossed my mind that another reason against being a fervent New Atheist is that faith can be, and in the posited absence of freedom of religion rightly should be, seen as an instance of the freedom of thought. To which The Brights surely cannot object.


Punk music is a joke ...

it's only just baroque! This clip is great, especially since I only just bought Pachelbel's Canon in a brass version. Merry Xmas!


The Poincaré Conjecture

I like reading about mathematics. Take this article about the proof of the Poincaré conjecture for example. You get an eerie impression of the spectacular inadequacy of common language to describe mathematical concepts, which are often hermetically clad in visual representations. While those representations may be describable, the description in turn would loose its conceptual representativeness of the idea that is represented in the graph. But that's merely a conjecture of mine - you may call it the Dreyer Conjecture.

It is consoling no end however that despite of the apparent superiority of mathematical language, mathematicians themselves are not aloof from the fickle deficiencies of human nature even in the conduct of their business. Which is probably just another piece of anecdotal evidence supporting my conjecture.


UK condones corruption

This story is very bad news for the rule of law in the UK and removes the last vestiges of credibility of Prime Minister Blair's whiter than white cabinet. "It has been necessary to balance the need to maintain the rule of law against the wider public interest" (Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in the House of Lords this afternoon). Furthermore, our conclusion about the motivation for the Saudis' opposition against the SFO investigation in question is now inevitable indeed.



Fondue is one of, if not the single most stereotypical dish of Switzerland, as gauged by the probability with which it would feature on the menu of a touristy restaurant in summer (It's never eaten in summer - ever!). What's the most surprising about it is that I love it! Here's a fairly good recipe for it - but make sure to use only Swiss cheese, it's just not authentic otherwise (or so I am told by the local cheese industry).

As it is winter in the northern hemisphere now, this is the season for fondue, so we've had some yesterday. But it was a fondue with a twist; a twist that I heavily recommend. If you've never had a fondue, then try the recipe mentioned above first.

Now that you're a seasoned cheese soup eater (remember the rules: if you loose your bread in the fondue, you have to sing a song or do something else embarrassing), you can go for the twist - a morel fondue! Prepare by soaking 40 grams of dried morels in a 50/50 mix of milk & water for two hours. Then, instead of using Kirsch according to the recipe, use the same quantity of brandy and add the morels (without the water!) to the fondue when the last cheese lumps are gone.



Nuclear chocolate

If you follow my business blog, you're aware that I've spent the last two days in Brussels. While the weather was miserable, everything else was very good: I was the first ever non-member guest to the FEE annual dinner which was held at the recently reopened Atomium, which was a great honour. And no, there wasn't any polonium on the menu, thank you.

Then, after the conference, I spent too much money on Belgian chocolate. Have a look at the flickr gallery for some pics. Galler's Kaori is incredibly imaginative, and delicious. Culinary calligraphy - awesome! Equally fanciful, and in keeping with the nuclear theme, is Pierre Marcolini's winter collection Molecule de Chocolat. It's a pity though that Belgian chocolatiers are running circles around their Swiss competitors these days - I guess they've just become too inert.

P.S. For more entertaining references to nucelar, erm, nuclear food & weaponry, check out this week's The Now Show.


DIY earthquakes

This is madness! I certainly don't mind geothermic energy and all, but an ongoing research project is known to trigger small earthquakes in my area. Well, the one we felt half an hour ago with a magnitude of 3.4 is certainly not a "micro" earthquake anymore. It has even widened a crack in the kitchen's plastering! Guys, this is definitely not funny!

Here is the special page of the Swiss Seismological Service, and they even have a bloody blog - fortunately for them, the comment function is not available there!

Thanks to Schweiz aktuell for telling us about this!


The brain queen

I like intelligent crime fiction. Unfortunately, there isn't much of that genre available in German. So when I came across an interview with Thea Dorn, I decided to read one of her stories. I went for Die Hirnkönigin, and I do not regret it. The story is just a little bit splatter, as it's about a classically educated female serial killer who is driven to free good men's brains from their bodily confines (literally). It feels a bit like CSI. The most amazing parts, however, are where she goes for the kill, regularly quoting directly & by heart from the Greek, preferably from the battle scenes in Homer's bloodthirsty Iliad. The pulse of the language and the build up of tension are almost classical, and they compensate for some thinness in the overall structure. It's recommendable, but just. I enjoyed it, but I do not feel compelled to read any other of Dorn's books.


Pyntlus communis

For a sample of weird Eastern Swiss humour, have a look at this dissertation about Pyntlus communis. Finally, the missing link between flora & fauna has been discovered! Vegetarians all over the world will be forever thankful! I can see a whole new export industry for Eastern Switzerland!


A dog's life

As you may be aware, I have a new dog. In Switzerland, that invariably involves some administrative procedures. There's a communal dog tax to be paid, for which I registered Laika today. What with the current, rather ridiculous debate about "fighting" dogs, there is more to come.

On top of that, there is a country wide pet identification system called ANIS, which involves tagging your pet subcutaneously with an RFID tag. This system has been declared mandatory for all dogs beginning this year. Seeing how there are certainly about one million dogs in this country, and assuming an average life expectancy of 10 years apiece, there are 274 database modifications from natural reasons only each and every day, and that's not counting address changes. So I was expecting to get access to an efficient online workflow. But nothing could be further from the truth. The good people at ANIS actually insist on sending paper forms to and fro! What's wrong here?!?!

Shaken or stirred - I don't give a damn

While the quote may not be verbatim, it is certainly in keeping with the style of Casino Royale, the new Bond. This is IMHO the most authentic Bond ever. Seriously.

Authenticity starts at the opening credits. No psychedelic floating soft porn, but new, theme based, old school visual language. The story is based closely on the first Bond novel with added leverage (literally). Bond's character has been very appropriately adapted to the new actor, and, incidentally, to Ian Fleming's original design: In M's words, Bond is a "blunt instrument", he doesn't care much about subtle and finesse, effectivity will do. But despite of his dry business sense, he is passionate and smart. I should add though that the passion gets beaten out of him very painfully in the course of action, but his smartness remains. In that sense, Bond is much like Jack Bauer in 24.

There's some really good extensive dialogue even - probably the longest ever, without intermittent casualties. The high tech gadgetry is there, but lacking resourceful Q, it is kept in the background, as is the unusually discreet product placement. Amazingly, the hallmark Bond tune is entirely absent, which is only logical, seeing how Casino Royale is about the making of James Bond as a Double-0 agent.

Switzerland features fairly prominently, as it often does in Bond movies. Some of the great scenery is probably shot in southern Switzerland, and there's Mr Mendel, a somewhat featherbrained Swiss banker with his suitcased account remote control. But I shouldn't forget Mr Mendel's employer, Basle Bank! I say, may home town makes the new Bond! Too bad there is no such bank.

Casino Royale is worth seeing. Sean Connery is definitely last century.

P.S. Watch this interview with former CIA director James Woolsey. Its takeaway: The better you are at what you do, the less people know about it.



Browse the forecasts of over 70 of the world's most brilliant scientist for the next 50 years, put together by the New Scientist in it's 50th anniversary edition. I especially like this and this.


Ode to Istanbul taxidrivers

The Istanbul taxidriver is a virtuoso with his vehicle. He studiously reads the traffic's score & adjusts to the road's vagaries in his trajectory. Like an organ player interpreting Bach's Toccata con Fuga, he would happily apply his full person in controlling the wheel, the gear and pedals. He seldomly engages the brakes, but would rather use the hooter & the accelerator in its stead. Despite of the full road orchestra's din, he maintains his focus on his part by listening to Turkish pop music blaring from his radio.

His masterly performance can be seen during each rush hour for just a few yenteli. Sit back in awe and enjoy!


Captain James Bigglesworth

Remember my bout of nostalgia concerning Biggles? Imagine my surprise when I walked past Hatchard's tonight and saw this! The Biggles series has been republished!

Since it's not worth while entering a bookstore to buy just one book, I stocked up on more recent Scottish crime literature, namely the new Rankin as well as the new McCall-Smith. Since Mr McCall has been rather prolific lately, make that two. But Dream Angus is part of Waterstone's 3 for 2 offer, so it's only natural for the parsimonious Swiss to get another two books: this rather rather useful almanach and, in preparation for next week's trip to Istanbul, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul. Memories of a City.

Until further notice, all time wasting is off!

P.S. Have a look at the amazing new Alice in Wonderland decorations in Fortnum & Mason's shop window. Pictures are available in my flickr gallery.



Have I mentioned that I am in town? No? Well, too bad, because I am until Thursday. Later more, perhaps.



Please meet Laika, the newest member of the Dreyer family pack! Laika is a four months old, pedigreed Tervuren. She's joined us yesterday and she's currently getting used to life around here, especially to doting old Bobby and Simba, the cat. I am looking forward to training her in order to get her boldly to be what all our dogs have been to date, namely alert and friendly companions. There's a lot of training to be done for sure, but the way she responds to it already, I am confident it will work out very well.


Autumn blues

Do you feel the autumn blues? Does the reduced daylight weigh on your mind? Do you need an intellectually induced treat of endorphins? Listen to the latest programme in the BBC Radio 4's In Our Time series, where Melvyn Bragg discusses the heavily mathematical Poincaré Conjecture with three mathematicians. This cerebral workout will certainly do the job!


Shuffle incoming

Engadget is right, the new Apple iPod Shuffles are shipping! Although my Apple store pre-order status still shows ETA of 3 November, I just received a call from DHL or some such announcing delivery tomorrow morning. Yay! Btw, I ordered on 28 September.

Update 1 November: Oh well, the surprise delivery wasn't to be, it was something else. But now, ETA is tomorrow.


On Wednesday, the jazznojazz-Festival 2006 is going to start in Zurich. I am looking forward to attending a live performance of Brad Mehldau for the first time. I have most of his albums (the latest one being Metheny Mehldau). I am really looking forward to that!


The Great Game of Genocide

Read this excellent interview with Donald Bloxham, author of The Great Game of Genocide and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. I really like his analytical, unagitated approach to an ugly topic. The interview's subject matter is the Armenian Genocide, an apparent historical fact which is still rather aggressively contended by contemporary Turkey, probably against better knowledge. However, it is interesting to see that another Edinburgh historian, Norman Stone, takes the opposite view to Mr Bloxham's in Weltwoche, namely that the genocide technically was not a genocide because it cannot be proved that the Ottoman government had ordered it. That's probably what happens when you try to adjudicate on historical matters by using non-legal historical terms.

The reason for this accumulation of articles about the Armenian genocide is an ongoing political controversy in France and Switzerland these days.

Topics from 192 countries

This morning, I woke up to find a request from Shinji from Tokyo in my inbox, asking whether I would be interested to contribute to Topics from 192 countries, a group blog bringing together one blogger from every country in the world. There's already 35 contributors. Of course, I wouldn't let the chance to represent my country to the Blogging Nations get past me. Go check it out!


Why Mac is cool

Mac is cool because 1) it just works. In those rare events where 1 temporarily doesn't hold, 2) you can always rely on a little help from your friends to get it back up.

A case in point is an issue with Mail that I was able to fix yesterday, with the assistance from a friend I didn't know I had who lives in Barcelona, Spain. ¡Muchas gracias, David!


Tante Hänsi

Tonight I went to see Tante Hänsi, a contemporary musical theatre (not to be mistaken for a musical) about Swiss death rituals. This is an amazing piece of tension between past & present, rural & urban as well as life & death, no less. The music oscillates between contemporary music performed by two fine voices, a countertenor and a mezzo soprano, and yodeling, which creates a very unusual atmosphere indeed. The texts are mostly in Swiss German, but there is a booklet with a German "translation". Hurry if you want to see it - there's only two more performances here, then they will go to Mexico & Berlin.


Bushisms = Putinisms?

One wonders what's worse ... the utterances of the President of the United States or those of the President of the Russian Federation. On the occasion of the burial of Anna Politkovskaya, a murdered Russian opposition journalist who was very critical of the Kremlin, he said that her murder has done more damage to Russia than her writings (I am paraphrasing because I couldn't find the exact quote).

It is one of my maxims never to assume bad will where sheer incompetence suffices ...

Good commercials

I am a great fan of good marketing communication, better known as commercials. So much so in fact that I am prepared to spend money and a night in the cinema to watch the awards of the Cannes Lions Festival if they come to town.

However, I cannot tell you what makes a commercial a good commercial - otherwise I'd be in the wrong industry, I guess. After all, even Henry Ford (I think) said that half of his marketing budget was a waste of money - he just didn't know which half. So I'll confine myself to giving you two examples of bad commercials. The first one is the ad for Swiss wine shown in this post. The caption says: "Sex is just a substitute". And the second one is a TV commercial for a French car, featuring Sean Connery. Both are prime examples of bland, boring, guaranteed brain-free advertising of the worst kind. That's the stuff that should have been rejected and probably would not show up here either. What does that tell us about buyers of advertisements?


Domesday Mead

Sometimes when I am in experimental mood, I go out and do something mad, like buying English wine. That happened during my recent visit to London, where I got a bottle of red, white and English Mead from Fortnum & Mason. I can now relate the news to you because the mead has been tasted yesterday, and I live to tell.

If you wonder what mead is, then rest assured that you're not alone. It's the first time that I've tasted it myself. Mead, or German Met is the ancient beverage of the Germanic gods imbibed (copiously, I am sure) in Walhalla. It is a gold coloured wine made of fermented honey and it tastes accordingly - very sweet. If you have a sweet tooth like I do, then this is a desert wine for you. It is pretty much like a Sauternes, but mostly without the underlying slight acidity, or complexity for that matter. But nice no less. I am surprised that mead is not better known. But then again, the other day when I tasted an excellent Sauternes on a Swiss flight and they had to open the bottle for me, I learnt that this is not a widely held taste among Europeans, whereas people from the Middle East seem to like it much more. Interesting.


Geographical data

It looks like Switzerland is slowly growing up to the internet age! Here is a portal site to cantonal geographical information systems which, as is the case for my canton, may offer precise geo information down to and about individual lots of land. Impressive!


Why I don't play strategy games

As you know, I've tried (in vain) to give Second Life a shot. Which is curious because I was never really interested in those popular strategy and simulation games, which are not so far away from Second Life, you might think. So why is that?

The reason for that uncharacteristic lack of curiosity is that I think those games are terminally boring; they can be played in single player mode, which presupposes a defined set of algorithms within which the parameters of the game are set. These algorithms probably do not allow for evolutionary change of conditions, which is the domain of real life. Hence these games will only happen within the limits of the parametric equations that the developers could think of, however creatively this fact will be disguised. Incorporating other human players into the game does not fundamentally change that characteristic since they also will be subject to the same parameters. In fact, I wonder whether other human players are distinguishable from random robots - what was the name of that test again??

Whilst there is no way (yet?) that Second Life can get around some parametric limitations of a virtual reality, the available degree of creativity seems to be of a different order, so that it appears to be a better approximation of reality. That's why I was interested in it. Ironically, the proof of the pudding is not available to me because of a stupid video card incompatibility ...


Recent acquisitions

My music buying patterns have changed quite a bit lately, I noticed the other day. Nowadays, the standard procedure would be that I hear something enticing on a podcast, and then go to iTunes to get it. That has happened with two rather obscure-ish Russian composers (namely Khandoshkin, whom I've heard about on the Naxos podcast, and Taneyev, whose remote acquaintance I am pleased to have made via the Gramophone podcast) as well as with The Lament for the Laird of Annapool, an entirely thrilling Scottish bagpipe piece from The World's Greatest Pipers, which I've heard played on Radio Clash. But there's also the conventional, fail-safe purchase based on previous knowledge: E.S.T.'s new album Tuesday Wonderland. Enjoy!

Speaking of buying & selling ... the phone is gone!

Second Life

Despite of my well established negligence of gaming, this Economist article convinced me to have a look at Second Life, a well populated virtual reality, it seems. However, after signing up, downloading & installing the required app, it turns out that the required application is not really Mac compatible, despite of their claims. Their system requirements need to be taken very literally, especially with the video card. Boooh, Second Life! Mac users are not used to having to check for some system components compatibility when they're on a standard machine!


ISDN to go

As you know, the days of POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) are gone for my house, so I really don't need that wireless ISDN telephone setup anymore. You can buy it here! Watch out, there's already a bid for it!


The Queen

Well, this weblog rapidly becomes a movie review site! As indicated earlier, I went to see The Queen tonight. I am glad I did, because I seriously doubt that it will be shown in Basle. It is rather, erm, English after all.

Nonetheless, it is a phenomenal film - I don't have a single complaint about it. It is high drama based on recent history, executed with the acutest care for detail imaginable, incredible casting as well as acting (dare one say Oscar?) - and yet, the movie breathes a quiet air of subdued energy & moderation. If that sounds contradictory, then it's very well, because tension is at the heart of the matter. It is all about the tension between the institution of monarchy and the person holding that position during a defining moment. And incidentally, it is about to become an epitaph for Mr Blair's time as Prime Minister, the greatest achievement of which it will have been - apart from having civilised Labour - to have been instrumental in securing the survival of the British monarchy.


Movie time

Being the royalist that I am, I hope to catch The Queen during my upcoming stay in London from Sunday to Wednesday.

But before I do, I'd like to share my view of Das Parfum with you. I am talking about the film version of Patrick Süskind's bestseller, of course. It's a serial killer crime story about Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, an 18th century Parisian X-man avant la lettre. His special power is that he has an overly acute and analytical nose, plus he is entirely devoid of any personal body odour. Thus lacking of an olfactory personality himself, he goes on to collect all possible sorts of scents, which conclusively leads him to becoming a master perfumer. However, to cure his personal deficit, he starts to compose a miraculous perfume consisting of the essence of thirteen beautiful young women, for whose survival in the scent extracting process of enfleurage he has no concern whatsoever. In this endeavour, he is inspired by his master's tale of a mythological egyptian perfume which, when released, made everyone love its wearer. Allegedly, it consisted of thirteen components, the last of which remained unknown.

While the book is well made, it struck me as overly artistic and metaphorical when I read it - so I was never really convinced. The movie however is a different story. The camera & direction are superb, the acting is fine (with the notable exception of a rather disappointing Alan Rickman); setting and atmosphere seem ingeniously authentic. The frequent heartbeats in the soundtrack did get on my nerves occasionally, though. The film is a great rendition of an essentially "German" (by way of its author) story in that it has for object the pursuit of an ideal goal without moral considerations or compassion. Süskind's "Gollum" Grenouille is completely absorbed in the banality of his wrongdoing, and we pity him for it! Not even the perfume induced mass orgies towards the end appear particularly absurd - they just put on display the penchant of the masses to be manipulated & seduced, for everyone to see.

This I think is the key deficit of the film relative to the book, and it is altering the message: The film character of Grenouille comes across as almost innocent, naïve and pitiable, whereas in the book, he is perfectly repulsive! But apart from that, the Perfume is a very entertaining and very "European" movie.



Listen to the last programme in the BBC Radio 4's series Iconoclasts. It is a panel discussion about Björn Lomborg, a.k.a. the Sceptical Environmentalist. If you wonder why this debate is conducted in the context of a series dedicated to Religion & Ethics, then I am fully with you - and so is Björn. However, if you listen to the moral outrage of his opponents who very much resent that he actually dares to question the priorities of problem solving in his Copenhagen Consensus, then you'll understand. How to approach global warming is apparently not issue accessible to rational debate, but a question of faith. Thanks to Joel for the cue!


Von Borstlingen und Schmierlingen

   Hon. Die Namen der Winzlinge auf der Walderde tönen wie aus dem Telefonbuch des Feenreichs. Hören wir einmal genau hin: Die porigen Schupplinge treffen sich mit den schuppigen Porlingen bei den zottigen Schirmlingen, dem fleischblassen Milchling und dem geselligen Nabeling und klatschen über die Rolle der Stäublinge im Streit mit dem Satans-Röhrling, der behauptet, der verdrehte Rübling mit der Rotkappe, diese Gift-Lorchel, habe dem gelbmilchenden Becherling mit der Bischofsmütze das Geheimnis verraten, dass der gemeine Felbling und der dünnfleischige Egerling den behangenen Düngerling hinter dessen Rücken einen warzigen Drüsling, einen hässlichen Dickfuss, einen gallertfleischigen Krüppelfuss, ja sogar einen natternstieligen Schleimfuss gescholten habe, was nun den Blättling, den Borstling, den Brätling, den Krempling und den Eier-Wurstling fürchterlich aufregt und den Tränen-Täubling und den wässrigen Faserling, diese beiden Zärtlinge, gar zum Weinen bringt. «Pustularia», meint der fuchsige Streifling, «wir scheren uns einen Pfifferling darum. Wir schicken den brennenden Ritterling mit der abgestutzten Keule, und der wird diesem grossen Schmierling eine Ziegenlippe hauen, so dass er glaubt, seine Totentrompete zu hören!» - Nur weg aus dem Wald, bis der Spuk mit diesen pilzigen Sonderlingen wieder vorbei ist! 

Textkasten in einem Artikel über Pilze in der heutigen NZZ


Faith, Reason, University

If the new CEO of the Roman Catholic Church, HH the pope lectures on faith and reason, everyone who is interested in either had better listen, especially since he was CIO (Chief Ideology Officer, aka Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in his previous job.

The lecture in itself is a very comprehensive assessment of the classical dialectic relationship between Reason and Faith, setting out with a classical quotation of the byzantine emperor Manuel II. Palaeologos, demonstrating the differences between how christianity and islam think that their supreme being is related to reason. While the christian god is thought to be bound by reason, the muslim god is considered to be totally transcendental and independent of any human concepts such as reason, hence spreading the faith through the sword is thought to be legitimate.

This is my weak summary of the part of the lecture that seems to have irritated some muslim scholars. They probably haven't even read the lecture. The reactions are certainly interesting at any rate.

There's not much point in further tracing the lecture, which looks at the de-hellenisation (i.e. de-linking of christian faith and greek philosophy) in three waves since the reformation in some detail. The key point is - unsurprisingly - that the pope rejects the way in which critical rationalism has pushed back faith from the communitarian field to the individually subjective. The problem though is, IMHO, that he argues from the outcome, which he cannot accept - weil nicht sein kann, was nicht sein darf? This, IMHO again, is simply bad logic and not very convincing.


Supercritical water

This fascinating article about supercritical water (water at temperatures > 374 degrees Centigrade and pressures > 221 bar) got me to look for some movies about the supercriticality transition, which must be rather spectacular to look at. The water becomes darker and darker until it reflects all light when it becomes supercritical. Apparently, water of that state might even exist in nature, namely at the bottom of the ocean. See movies here and here. Do you know what's best? You can find stuff like that with a few keystrokes ...



I know what you're thinking, and I sympathise ... but I'd like to share a thought with you that I've picked up in a column of my preferred daily today: 9/11 is as much about what happened in NYC 5 years ago as about Satyagraha, the philosophy of non-violent resistance founded by Mohandas Gandhi in Johannesburg a hundred years ago. The Indian independence movement could have gone down a violent path very easily, too, but where would it have left everybody involved? It's too terrible to think about, and fortunately, it is mere speculation. Today's hot headed "freedom" fighters might want to learn a lesson - or not.

But regular religion is not very much about learning, since it already knows the truth. The question is just how tolerant it is towards realities that are out of line with its own perception of reality. One man's cognitive dissonance is the next man's fundamentalism. Foreign Affairs has a remarkable article about the rôle of religion in US politics in general and foreign policy in particular. The material distinctions drawn between evangelicals and fundamentalists are quite enlightening, as are the explanations for the unwaivering US support for Israel. Essential reading!


The agnostic theologian

Listen to this interesting interview with Rudolf Wehrli. This man seems to be a fascinating character: as an agnostic, he studied theology to finish with a doctorate, as he did in philosophy. Then he went into business as a consultant with McKinsey. Now he is president of the board of Gurit. He says he is driven by an insatiable curiosity, or rather curiositas, to learn new things, and he is a sceptic and a rationalist. Not many people like that around ...


Back to Finland!

Thanks to a generous contract renewal offer at my mobile phone service provider, I replaced my trusty old Motorola RAZR with a shiny new Nokia 6280 for "free" and, boy, is this thing choke full of features! It almost seems like I've jumped over a decade of evolution here, but no, it's "just" two years ...

To pimp up the phone, I also ordered a massive 2GB MiniSD card for a measly 80 Swissies. Amazing!list.blogug.ch


Is it a bird?

Is it a plane? No, it's Superman!

I had another thoroughly enjoyable cinema evening yesterday night, seeing Superman returns with W & T. This is a perfectly worthy successor and update of the 80's classic - something that you rarely get with remakes nowadays. I guess it takes a lot of moderation and confidence on the part of the director not to overshoot. Superman Returns is a well balanced template with online resources aplenty - bluetights.net???

What's becoming increasingly more annoying though, despite of the first digital projection to my knowledge, is the rather poor experience with online reservation system of Kino Basel AG. It's perfectly obvious that the internet is an inevitable nuisance to those guys. Their competitors at KITAG are so much more professional. I think I'll have to take care not to leave too much credit on that Moviecard ...


White, too white

Thanks to this review in Weltwoche, I found out about a photo exhibition in Hamburg which I will not be able to see despite of its rather disconcerting effect. The exhibition consists of portrait studies by Andreas Deffner of Indians who are suffering from albinism. This would be rather innocent by itself, were it not for the powerful racial - or racist? - allusions the images work on. Whiteness as a genetic disorder for once. Rather daring - and bold is the critic who dares to venture into this minefield.


40 years on ...

Where will we be? What's the shape of the world going to be?

Fascinating to see how it was 40 years back: This day 40 years back, the "Cultural" Revolution was kicked off in China, one of the most traumatic totalitarian events in recent history. And five years before that, the dividing wall between east and west Berlin was erected.

Fortunately, both apparently monumental events are now superseded by subsequent changes after just one generation. What will remain of today's big news? Hardly anything, I presume - certainly not the "war on terror".


German brutality

"The German reputation for brutality is well earned. Their operas are known to last four to five days, and their language doesn't have a word for 'fluffy'."

Captain Blackadder in Blackadder Goes Forth


Codices Electronici Sangallenses

More ancient manuscripts! We now have unlimited, free access to 100 (and rising to 400) rare manuscripts from the Convent Library St. Gallen. Some of those manuscripts date back to the 8th century CE. All pages of those manuscripts as well as their often spectacular bindings are available as high quality colour, high resolution pictures. This is amazing stuff!


Da Finger!

You may be forgiven if you think you are being given the finger in the Zürich main train station, but you'd be wrong. It's actually a warning to beware of pickpockets (Langfinger in German) turned steel, or whatever it is ... fancy!



The Swiss webspace is increasingly filling up with "life" content! The latest addition to it is Aktionis, a student founded, independent portal to current discounts from Swiss retailers. Good stuff! Now, link this with Map Search, a store locator and match it with your personal shopping list to get a fully optimised shopping errand!

Also new in the webspace is pianoforte, the minimal art website of my nephew N's drumming band. Not yet very informative, really ...


Domesday Book

Who'd have thought that a 900 years old tax inventory can make for an interesting read?! See for yourself in the Domesday Book.

Philips RK 50

A foray into the pre-digital age - Philips RK 50 tape machine for sale.

Btw, the heaviest iPod weighs about 86 times less (without tapes for the machine) and holds about 672 times more music. And it does a few more things, like doubling for a watch, calendar, toy etc ... talk about productivity efficiency increase - some 58'000 fold!

Only 15

It's only 15 years now that the world wide web has been invented at the CERN in Switzerland, and already it is completely indispensable. See this BBC timeline.

P.S. Here is the historic newsgroup message.


A mighty fine mouse!

Yay! One day ahead of schedule, my new Mighty Mouse arrived today, and already I wouldn't want to go back anymore. So, if you would like to keep a well behaved, plain vanilla, tailless rodent, just let me know ...

In other news, I finally downgraded my 5 MBit/s service to a 3 MBit/s one from Cablecom. The difference will more than pay for the VoIP landline that I am switching to at the same time, which in turn pulls the last plug on my Swisscom connection. About the CHF 100 downgrade fee that Cablecom charges ... let's just say that it doesn't take much clever negotiating, seeing how the contract's notice is three months at no cost.

Speaking of all that connectivity - you already know that I am a FONero, and I am still happy with the idea, even though the router turned out to be dramatically (+100%) more expensive than almost free because of unexpected customs & VAT. See my gripes here.



Amazing! I used to think that Synaesthesia was a rather brainy & abstract concept in art, until I just saw the Apple profile of Japanese artist Takagi Masakatsu. This guy's got it!, I thought. Turns out that Synaesthesia is in fact a psychological perceptive condition! Live & learn ...


20'000 new feelings per day

The latest installment of Benjamen Walker's Theory Of Everything is dedicated to an amazing website: We feel fine. Their bots search the blogosphere for posts containing I feel ... and the like and the site displays those outpourings very creatively - I particularly like the Mounds. Bored surfing the web will never be the same again!

Same pictures - new exhibition

This review encouraged me to buy Same pictures - new exhibition, a jazz version of Modest Mussorgsky's well known piece, the Pictures at an exhibition. There's loads of versions and recordings of this piece around, which has originally been composed for the piano. My reference is a BBC Philharmonic recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestral transcription.

This double-CD album is fabulous. It pretty much retains the structure of the original work, while the half-hour musical substance is almost tripled by the "minimal big band's" very own variations on the themes presented. I have a feeling that Mussorgsky would have absolutely loved it! While this recording is a very interesting and pleasant standalone jazz record, it might also be a good starting point for an amateur of classical music who is interested to know what that jazz thing is all about ...

WTO blogged

Have a look at this excellent analysis of the reasons for the breakdown of WTO negotiations. It puts blame where blame belongs - to EU trade politicians, and mostly the French subset of that glorious group (via EU-Law).



The indications are clear - marketing budgets have become frothy again! See this online magazine for young accountants. YP? Surely not MP (My Problem) ...



At last, I know more about my meteorite! It has come down in the Sikhote-Alin mountain range on 12 February 1947 - for more information, check out the wikipedia page. If you want to have a look around the neighbourhood, fire up Google Earth and use this. German minerals magazine Lapis had extensive coverage back in 1998 - here's the most informative page.



At well over 30 degrees centigrade, I recommend a visit to the current special exhibition of Henri Matisse at the Fondation Beyeler. But not just because the Fondation is air conditioned, nor because the exhibition only lasts until Monday, after having been prolonged. The exhibition is a must see if you like Henri Matisse, painter of luxury. It is only when you see a large selection of his works put together in one place, you actually appreciate the artist's work in its integrity, and Matisse certainly deserves that attribute. Matisse is very French in that respect, although the pompous French documentary about him from 1946 which is also on display doesn't do him much justice, just listening to its awful Wochenschau Marschmusik style soundtrack.

On a slightly different note, I am beginning to think that there is a big artistic vacuum beginning with WWII - I don't know any contemporary art that has made as big a step forward comparable to what classical modernism did in relation to its predecessors. Care to debate?


Smart Basel

The August issue of jet-setting hipster magazine Wallpaper* has the eponymous article about the town which I usually refer to as home. It's a really well researched and comprehensive portrait of the place (dropping all the right names where one has to have been, and they even recommend swimming in the Rhine!) - including its occasional dullness, but in a friendly way: Why is it that the concept of a "perfect" city immediately suggests that it is "perfectly dull", especially if the word "Swiss" is involved?

I am a Linus!

Are you a FONero, too? FON is an open wireless LAN community which shares home access points globally. If you move about with your laptop a lot, you know what kind of a ripoff those commercial wireless hotspots are. For FON Linuses, access to FON hotspots is free. For Bills, it costs $3 per day, of which half goes to the hotspot provider, so there might even be a little bit of money in it. Give it a thought - the idea is spreading quickly, as the map of my domestic region shows. I am the one furthest west.


A square foot of Picasso, please!

Wired is really cool - I wonder how they keep digging up their stories. Check out this one about David Galenson, an economist who developed two different types of genius, the conceptual innovator who tends to come forward with brash innovations early on while the experimental innovator proceeds by trial & error, thus takes more time to mature. And how did he get to that? The economist way - by plotting price charts of works of art against the artist's age!

Cheekily, Wired even steals the generic creativity excuse by means of a very nice moral of the story: Of course, not every unaccomplished 65-year-old is some undiscovered experimental innovator. This is a universal theory of creativity, not a Viagra for sagging baby boomer self-esteem. It?s no justification for laziness or procrastination or indifference. But it might bolster the resolve of the relentlessly curious, the constantly tinkering, the dedicated tortoises undaunted by the blur of the hares.


Accounting, IKEA style

Here's an interesting piece of financial sleuthing about the "tax-efficient" setup of privately held IKEA:Lebst Du schon - oder schraubst Du noch?


8. August 1662

"Thence by boat. And it being rough, he told me the passage of a Frenchman through London bridge; where when he saw the great fall, he begun to cross himself and say his prayers in the greatest fear in the world; and as soon as he was over, he swore 'Morbleu c'est le plus grand plaisir du mond' - being the most like a French humour in the world."

From The Diary of Samuel Pepys



Any idea what this is? If you think it looks a bit like one of those electronic stamps, then you're not far from the truth. Not far because it's more expensive, and rightly so since it entitled me to take the train from Basel to Zürich & back today. It comes in the form of an MMS that you receive on your mobile phone, which you then proceed to show to the ticket collector on the train. Who may or may not be impressed by your display of technical wizardry - good fun! Just take care to not run low on your phone's battery, ere you might be stranded at your destination ...


The Scots

Yet another reference to my newspaper of choice! The current issue of NZZ Folio is dedicated to Scotland. It's rather informative, but full of stereotypes. Enjoy (if you read German)!

Speaking of stereotypes: Do you know Overheard in New York? It's full of dry wit and sitcom. I'm thinking about starting a knockoff: Mitgehört im Schweizerland. Not sure whether there's enough wit to go round, though ...


The Art of Travel, revisited

My newspaper of choice has a triplet of travelling literature related articles (all in German, of course) in its weekend supplement which reminds me very much of The Art of Travel. I wonder why they have that now ...

The first one is a detailed and well written assessment of the different approaches of Leslie Stephens & John Ruskin in appraising the Swiss mountains. It is also a very instructive confirmation of how instrumental English Victorians were in laying the foundations of Swiss tourism, if not philanthropic development assistance to Swiss farmers (that's the Swiss government's job nowadays) through his Guild of St. George, although I have been unable to find confirmation of that trust's Switzerland related origins.

The next one describes the semi-autobiographical background of Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Now, I wonder whether it's just a coïncidence that the hero of Harold and Maude is called the way he is?

Solvitur ambulando, at last. Here, the author reviews the German edition of Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, an account of his epic walking journey from London to Istanbul (or Constantinople, as he seems to prefer to call it) that took him almost one and a half year until March 1935. I think I'll have to read that work in progress!


Dreyer, deploy the armament!

These were - allegedly - the words of Admiral Jellicoe to his then Captain Dreyer (the late Admiral Sir Frederic Charles Dreyer), which gave an important turn to events in the WWI Battle of Jutland.

Yours truly of course was entirely unaware of his prominent namesake (no relation), until that sad state of affairs was corrected by DD - a strong case in point for not expecting much in terms of knowledge of naval history from a citizen of a landlocked nation. So I guess I deserve all the friendly fire I am getting ever since!

This is the rather long-winded explanation for why I was happy about the opportunity to learn more by visiting the Ghosts of Jutland Exhibition currently on display on HMS Belfast on the occasion of the battle's 90th anniversary. The small commemorative exhibition is rather impressive, especially in that environment. Being on that ship reminded me that I'd always been fascinated by the Navy as a kid. What you're not so much aware of as a kid is the fact that such battleships, however powerful and impressive they may appear, can be swallowed by the ocean and literally disappear from the face of the earth with their crew within minutes. The ghosts of Jutland are still in the Skagerrak ... and tourists such as I complain about hitting their shins on HMS Belfast.

P.S. I knew all along that there was something wrong with the title! The command in question actually was: Dreyer, commence the deployment! Sounds much better, doesn't it.



Again in sweltering heat, I am signing off for a bit of travelling, first to Liechtenstein until tomorrow evening, then back home for a night and off to London until Thursday night. Perhaps, I'll post, perhaps not, we'll see how it goes. To keep you entertained in the meantime, have a gander at the pics from my nephew Tomi's birthday party yesterday night. Note that this is the first time I actually used my full flickr bandwidth on purpose - yay!


Home for tea

The Royal Over-Seas League's members magazine Overseas (unfortunately not available online) has a nice article about a member's recent transatlantic journey on the tall ship Stavros S Niarchos. Particularly amusing is the part where they picked up two American women whose boat had capsized 16 hours earlier. So they hauled them on board and gave them a hearty English breakfast. Just imagine the situation: you're sitting in the water for 16 hours, fearing for your life, and then a pirates like tall ship turns up and gives you English breakfast ...


Originally uploaded by jared.
I guess my nephew Tomi will be able to make sense of this one. Happy Birthday!!

P.S. A great quote of Mark Twain I just came across: Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.


Military grade eyesight?

As a long-term reader of this logbook, you will know that I am interested in technology and its wider diffusion. So it won't be much of a surprise to you that I had my eyes checked about two years ago for whether it's possible to obtain a permanent correction of my bad eyesight.

Unfortunately my astigmatism combined with a rather thin cornea seems to not permit that for the moment. Otherwise I would have had it done in the blink of an eye, in a manner of speaking, which obviously is testimony to my confidence in technology. Just the other day, I talked to a guy who said he'd never do something like that. But why post about this now? Well, I just came across this NYT article describing how the US military uses this technology in its personel in a serial manner (via slashdot). Interesting!

P.S. Speaking of medical issues - do you know Dr. House, MD? I like that programme's twisted, cynical & humanistic attitude.


Do you recognise this? You should! It's a graphic representation of the link structure of this blog. You can get your own website of interest mapped here. It is particularly gratifying to watch the map blossoming (via Joel).

Back from Paris

Guilty as charged! I haven't blogged from Paris, even though I would have had the means and the motive, however the opportunity was in rather short supply. So then, here's a quick update - for photos, please go to flickr.

The train ride was a rather good, effortless experience to be repeated on future trips, even though I didn't quite get the TGV despite of having booked on said site, but I guess they wouldn't route that miracle of transport technology via Basle just for yours truly. I arrived in time, had an interesting luncheon meeting and subsequently a nice evening reception at the British Embassy as part of the Edinburgh University General Council meetings in Paris. It was good to see acquaintances from earlier events and meet new ones!

The event was continued with a formal lunch in the Cité Internationale Universitaire on Saturday. There was also a guided tour through this rather grand, albeit somewhat uninspiring collection of student halls. The evening found its conclusion with a Gala Dinner at the Restaurant of the French Senat, and a great chat with P. over an interesting bottle of Pelforth.

Sunday was dedicated to window shopping (in what kind of metropole do shops close on Sundays??) and discovering the streets until the train's departure. I think I quite like the Quartier St. Germain, where I discovered something very French, namely the Marché de la Poésie. This is a big open air affair where carefully and sometimes even artistically edited poetry is on sale in small editors' booths in front of Saint Sulpice. And what's even more French than that is the fact that the Marché has a podium discussion where alternatives to the market economy and more state intervention for the support of literature are demanded. It's surprising that those undoubtedly very intelligent people don't realise that with government funding of the arts comes stagnation, crustification and red tape.

On the way home, I read Le Figaro's interesting overview of who owns Paris (neither government nor church, surprisingly). Coïncidentally, the Magazine also had an article about traveling in Scotland. Nice! Last, but not least I discovered that my preferred newspaper is now available for complete download to all subscribers, so I had something else to entertain me on the long way back.


XP, c'est chic!

Well, you know what I mean ... but Parallels' Virtual Machine seems to be running really well!

I am signing off to go to sweltering Paris tomorrow far too early in the morning, staying until Sunday. Since I'll have this miracle of a machine with me, expect to read about it.


The last stand

Well, let's just say that I hope it really was their last stand (despite of some indications to the opposite - do stay until after the credits) ... I saw X-MEN III with T & P the other day. While I really liked the first two installments of this trilogy, the last stand was a bit of a disappointment. Story line and effects are grandiose, of course (amazing how the bad guys enter Alcatraz), but the characters don't really show any more development, even though the challenge to do so would clearly be there. Pity.

Technology Quarterly

Don't miss the Technology Quarterly in the current issue of The Ecconomist. There's loads of interesting stuff there - from music analysis algorithms to artificial artificial intelligence (i.e. man made, like Amazon's Mechanical Turk), life hacks and statistical approaches to (human) language translation. Oh, and did you know that while air travel is the safest mode of travelling if measured by incident per mile travelled, it is the second most dangerous one (after motorcycles) if assessed on a per-trip basis ...

Critical rationalism on the patio

I could get used to blogging from the patio, now that there is an excellent wireless connection! Ok, so let me bring it on ... although it's a bit embarrassing, really. It's well over a year that I reviewed volume 1 of Karl Popper's The Open Society & its enemies, but I can report completion of the second volume only now. It didn't take me so long because it was tedious reading, quite on the contrary!

It's fascinating to follow Popper's differentiated assessment of Hegel & Marx: Hegel gets the nuclear treatment while Popper finds many instances of agreement with Marx, which is rather surprising. But naturally, there is complete disagreement with regards to Marx's historicistic prophecies concerning the inevitable advent of socialism.

The most fascinating part are the closing chapters however, where Popper explains in some details his philosophical approach of critical rationalism. I think that his assessment of the sociology of knowledge and his rebuttal of the meaning of history still have an enormous political impact today. These two volumes are studied far too rarely!


Got that? Well, it's just the technical term for black lung which I noticed today on the A Word a Day widget.

This post is actually to announce that the Blackbook is in full operation now, rather than talk about occupational hazards. Admittedly, I struggled a bit to work around the harddisk failure that had occured involving my encrypted home directory, but all the files are safely transferred and backed up now - whew! When you have to do a manual batch file transfer sometime, just make sure that you not only use the identical username on the new system, but also that that user's UID is the same - sometimes, a bit of earlier UNIX exposure comes in handy ...

Otherwise, the new box works like a breeze!! It's amazingly fast, even with Office on Rosetta. The matte black finish looks very sophisticated and is actually reminiscent of the good old black Wall Street Powerbook, minus the curves. The glossy screen is a real beauty to look at, even in bright sunlight on the patio (none of those heat issues, either), where Airport reception is much better thanks to the non-metallic frame. Oh, and if you want to keep your iTunes library away from your home directory, then try this - it actually works perfectly!


FON: WiFi everywhere

Now there's an interesting project! FON aims to build a global WiFi community, based on a free community model. Everybody can join in (his ISP's terms permitting, which is an issue), sharing some of his bandwidth with other FON members (called Foneros) and thus obtaining the right to free usage of other FON access points worldwide. That is, if you're a Linus - a Bill does not need to share his bandwidth, but has to pay for access (that's obviously how the business modell works). Sounds like a very good idea, doesn't it. There's just two problems: You need software for your WLAN router, which is available only for a very limited number of routers, and evidently not for mine. And secondly, many ISPs (mine included) seem to prohibit sharing access ...


Ever heard (of) a Miolin? Me neither - until I heard it mentioned yesterday evening on DRS 2. Technically, I am talking about a 13 stringed guitar that has been developed by Messrs Chiavi and Miolin - which sounds wonderfully - but this instrument simply calls to be named a miolin, wouldn't you agree?

In other news, I have received word from my trusty purveyor of fine fruit that my recently ordered Blackbook has begun its long journey to its new home today, while in India, others have joined the club. Godspeed!

But this post would not be complete without mentioning my nephew's recently completed second part of his Playmobil pirate saga. But watch out - this time, it is a gory splatter movie! Don't believe me? Go check it out!

Alright. To top off the miscellaneous nature of this post, here is the story about the 2004 US election that is currently getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere. I have yet to read it, but I will, I promise.


Swiss Scotch

You know that something has gone mainstream if Swiss retailer Coop writes about it in its newspaper. Case in point is malt whisky. But Swiss whisky? Swissky? Switch??

There seems to be about a dozen or so distilleries producing whisky in Switzerland. The best reviews (according to Coop Zeitung) are accorded to Zürcher and Swissky. I am still not sure whether that's the right present to bring around next time I go to Scotland ...


Crowd power

These are two very loosely linked, but no less interesting instances of crowd power: Wired has coined a new business modell-related term again, namely crowdsourcing. The idea is that jobs get outsourced to "the web" of people that is connected via the internet. As always, the hit/noise ratio is low, but given the right search algorithms, that's not a problem (long tails, anyone?). Case in point is iStockphoto, where you can purchase the rights to stock photos for next to no money at all, what used to cost hundreds ...

The other instance is political, and thus more conventional in nature: Addio Pizzo does not say good bye to pizze, but rather to pizzo, which is the racket paid in Sicily, Italy. Addiopizzo is a movement started by young folk in Palermo. Sick of the Mafia, they flooded the city with stickers stating that An entire people paying the racket is a people without dignity. Now, the movement seems to gain traction - there's shopkeepers openly stating that they don't pay up, and a consumers' movement to only shop at those shops. This approach addressing the Mafia's business modell is much more promising that decades of police work. Avanti, Addiopizzo!



If you're wondering what's happening here, or rather, not happening here, then welcome to the Club! I am currently attending the CFA Institute's Annual Conference with all assorted meetings, and that takes up virtually all of my time. But I'll be back starting Thursday, I hope.


Guerilla Consumerism?

Weird. From May 19 to June 24, Basle will be hosting a Comme des Garçons guerilla store (via Metro | Basel). So, Basle seems to be a hip location after all, being in the same league as Glasgow, Hong Kong, Warsaw, Athens, Reykjavik, Cologne and Singapore. And, hey, we even have football skirmishes!!

At any rate, it is certainly no coïncidence that that store's opening period encompasses Art | 37 | Basel, which will bring oodles of artsy folk to our shores.


Allons enfants de la piraterie ...

Since I am in publishing mode, I might as well let you have the article I've recently published in Professional Investor. Here you go. It deals with the ongoing intellectual property right action in France and Apple's position with that regard, and yes, I am aware that things seem to have changed a little meanwhile. But never underestimate the French and their zeal for (successful!) street action ... I haven't really seen that revised text, yet.

Changing and growing

Occasionally, I feel to urge to do a bit of political analysis. This urge has grasped me yesterday, so I did an analysis of Mr. Putin's State of the Union Address of yesterday. It's also published on Newsvine.

It is interesting to analyse the State of the Union Address given yesterday by Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, especially if read after US Vice-President Cheney's remarks at the 2006 Vilnius conference a few days earlier.

Surely, nobody will object to Mr. Putin's strategic goal for Russia to become a country with a flourishing civil society and stable democracy, guaranteeing human rights as well as civil & political freedoms while building a competitive market economy protecting property rights and improving the nations defence.

Yet, the speech breathes an oppressive combination of swaggering calls for unity in the face of menacing competition, and a lack of self-assured confidence that is the prerequisite for a dependable great power and international partner. Seeing how this State of the Union Address is a carefully crafted piece of consensus opinion of the ruling Russian administration, it would indeed appear that Russia is returning to its age old paradigm of feeling surrounded by ominous foreign powers which are vying after the nation's sovereignty, as very recently explicitly stated by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

This does not bode well for Russia and the world.

On domestic issues, there is a lot of very clear sighted analysis of present problems as well as awareness of the current window of opportunity to resolve many of those problems, due to the "favourable economic situation" (read: oil price). Since the oil price is not explicitly mentioned, it is obviously a somewhat painful recognition that this window of opportunity has opened without Russia's initiative and thus might close again at any time.

Mr. Putin pays a lot of attention to necessary changes in bureaucratic and economic structures, stressing the importance above all of economic growth which is to achieve a doubling of the Russian GDP by 2010. This is to be reached by changes in infrastructure monopolies, which account for an ever increasing share of the economy, and by a reduction in the scope of government intervention. We almost think of laissez-faire when reading about the Russian people who "can achieve this better life if only we do not get in their way. At the very least, we must not get in the way, and it would [be] better still if we help." Competition appears to be accepted in the abstract as a governing principle of order, but it is considered to be a zero-sum game and not one to mutual advantage.

Yet, despite of all the recognised need for growth and change, there is a surprising reluctance, if not resistance to reform: "We do not need reforms purely for the sake of reforms. We do not need a permanent revolution." This, I think, is a clear indication of the deeply rooted fear that the administration harbours towards the mutual interaction between the political and the economic sphere in an open society. Witness the very opaque elimination from political life of Mr. Putin's potential rival, Mr. Kodorkhovsky. Evidently, Mr. Putin still thinks in terms of a command economy which has to supply growth, but must not interfere with politics. While such an approach is comprehensible in the aftermath of some chaotic transformation years dominated by a financial oligarchy, it is doomed to fail in the long run. One of the key factors to be observed is Mr. Putin's hope for greater transparency of how political parties are financed.

Sustainable growth in the face of technological and organisational innovation requires constant reconfiguration of the economy and the regulatory environment. Failure to do so will lead to stagnation and the breakdown of growth, which Russia is already beginning to suffer from.

I'd like to note some specific points of interest now.

1) Russia's membership in G8 seems to be of outstanding reputational relevance.

2) The Russian currency should become fully convertible.

3) Russian demographics poses a formidable challenge to growth, especially given the low overall density of population. The relative attractiveness of Russia as an immigration targets from other CIS Member States requires an effective immigration policy.

The address also contains several foreign policy statements, not the least important of which is an outright declaration that the CIS is Russia's sphere of strategic interest. This constitutes an explicit demarcation of scope of the Putin doctrine, which some CIS members will fail to agree with.

Otherwise, Russia aims for stability and predictability of the international order under the rule of international law.

Russia aims for true integration into Europe as a foregone historical choice. In that choice, Mr. Putin fails to realise however that the establishment of a cordon sanitaire of formally indepentent satellite states between herself and her partners of integration cannot be seen as a committment to equitable partnership.

The State of the Union Address also touches on the modernisation of the armed forces. While there is talk about the move to a professional army, air force and navy, to be completed by 2007, it is not clear at all that this means the abolition of compulsory military service - on the contrary: From 2008, the much feared compulsory service is halved to one year. Russia is also planning to introduce new strategic weaponry.

By way of introduction, I mentioned US Vice-President Cheney's speech in Vilnius, former part of the Soviet Union and now firmly entrenched in the EU and NATO. Already the fact that Mr. Cheney is able to launch his attack on Belarus and opponents of reform and further opening in Russia - or imitation of the West, as Mr. Solzhenitsyn would put it - from that vantage point must be perceived as an act of aggression on the part of the Russian administration. For, whether one agrees with the current US administration's evangelism for formal democracy or not, it is hard to overlook the discrepancy between Russia's strategic goal as stated in Mr. Putin's address, and its present day political life, where foreign support of broad voter participation and the promotion of independent news media organisations are suppressed, and influential political rivals jailed.

One of the key issues of Russian self-confidence remains with its perception of its own history. As long as Russia fails to accept that there are dark spots in its history (as in every other nation's), it is unlikely to be a fully dependable member of the international community of open societies. But there is hope: Earlier this year, we have celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Secret Speech with which Nikita Khrushchev started the first reform movement within the Soviet Union, doing away with Stalinism (which, incidentally, is being revived in today's Russia). It may be the next President of Russia who realises that the breakdown of the Soviet Union was a historical bonanza rather than a catastrophe - even for the Russian people.


Paris, not Texas

Remember that I vowed not to fly to Paris next time? Seeing how I have a lunch appointment there next month, I was afraid I had to do it all the same, until I discovered TGV. OK, admittedly no giant step for mankind, that - but I never travelled by TGV myself. Also, I quite like the fact that I got a first class return ticket for a mere CHF 94, which is really bon marché.

Going to Paris just for lunch might seem slightly out of proportion, but I am looking forward to combining that with the half-yearly meeting of the General Council of the University of Edinburgh, which is held abroad for the second time already, with London being counted as a foreign country from a Scottish perspective ... well, I am certainly looking forward to a reception at the British Embassy in Paris (remember see ivil French revölüshönairies from Blackadder ?) and a Dinner at the Palais du Luxembourg.