Paperwork

One fine pastime an EU correspondent has, when there’s nothing else to do, is to read the questions from Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to the EU Commission, which are published every now and then – together with the answers from the Commissioners – whenever the printing room has filled its capacity, I suppose; the latest bunch of Q and A is about half an inch thick.

Still, it’s certainly amusing reading, not least when you sense the ill-concealed fury expressed in the questions – the MEPs are a frustrated lot – and because of the just as ill-concealed attempts by the Commissioners to answer without actually saying anything.

No issue is too trivial. Whistleblower Paul van Buitenen MEP wants to know why the EU’s anti-fraud office OLAF is so aggressively incompetent, why he doesn’t get any response to his questions, and why those who have leaked the information on OLAF’s lack of competence are being persecuted. Caroline Lucas MEP is being informed how many journeys Commission staff hade to make to the Parliament’s sessions in Strasbourg – 3,500 last year, in spite of the presence of such inventions as e-mail, fax and telephone, at a cost of EUR 2.4 million, it turns out. Out of these, 55 per cent decided they needed to fly, 35 per cent were happy to go by car, and only seven per cent were environmental-friendly enough to take the train, the response sums up, which must mean that there are three per cent of the travellers who either walk from Brussels to Strasbourg or get lost on the way.

Maybe the Commission has become so large these days that doesn’t notice if 95 people go AWOL. Don’t tell the staff. It might be detrimental to their morale.

Anyway.

The question is, though, whether Christopher Heaton-Harris MEP doesn’t walk away with some kind of prize this time, as he contributes with a fine nugget, asking how many tonnes of paper the Commission used during 2004-2006.

1,703 tonnes in Brussels and 254 tonnes in Luxemburg in 2006, Commissioner Siim Kallas patiently responds, adding figures for the two preceding years that show that the Commission is actually munching less and less A4 office paper; its appetite has dropped by some 250 tonnes during that period. The Commission recycled about twice as much, Siim Kallas adds, because the recycling figures includes paper and cardboard coming from outside the Commission, such as packaging material, publications, documents from other institutions (and, I suppose, protest letters from the general public and odd questions from MEPs.)

So now you know: The Brussels Paper Tiger is actually getting easier on the environment. But we do not know how thirsty it is, however, because the next question from MEP Heaton-Harris – “How many bottles of water were consumed by staff at the European Commission in 2006?” is met with the response “The figures… are being sent direct to the Honourable Member and to Parliament’s Secretariat [sic]”.

I wonder what the Honourable MEP intends to do with them.

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Yuck

I think I’ll use gloves next time I go shopping. Consider this information from one of my favourite sites, which you can read all about if you click here:

“According to a four-year study conducted by the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Lab and sponsored by Clorox, grocery carts are veritable petri dishes teeming with human saliva, mucus, urine, fecal matter, as well as the blood and juices from raw meat. Swabs taken from the handles and child seats of 36 grocery carts in San Francisco, Chicago, Tucson, and Tampa showed these common surfaces to rank third on the list of nastiest public items to touch, with only playground equipment and the armrests on public transportation producing more disgusting results. In terms of playing host to germs and bacteria, the carts are far worse that public bathrooms…”

And to think of all the unpackaged foods you put in contact with the carts. And to think of how my children sometimes lick the handles.

Howard Hughes was right after all.

The Teletubbies Cometh

Among yesterday’s most amusing moments in my microcosmos was when a Polish journalist asked the EU Commission’s press spokesmen at the daily press conference what comment the Commission had on Poland’s decision to investigate whether Teletubbies are propagating homosexuality.

“Does the Commission believe that the Teletubbies are of a bad influence on young children?”, the Polish journalist asked, audibly with her tounge firmly placed in her cheek.

“The Commission believes in the freedom of the media”, was the short answer, accompanied by roaring laughter from the press gallery.

Because, yes, this idea, which was first suggested by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has been revived in Poland, where child ombudsman Ewa Sowinska was to investigate Tinky Winky’s sexual orientation. The collected evidence for these allegations are:

1) Tinky Winky is purple.

2) Tinky Winky carries a handbag.

3) Tinky Winky’s head antenna is vaguely shaped like a triangle.

That’s it.

It may be laughable, especially when you start asking yourself in which ways any gender is associated with the Tubbies – for all I know, they could all be girls – or whether they are capable of having relationships with each other of such a nature that would make homosexuality, according to its biological definition, possible. But Ms. Sowinska took the whole thing very seriously and was to consult psychologists and their likes in order to reach at a verdict.

Today I heard that the whole investigation has been dropped. Congratulations, Polish taxpayers.

That leaves us Christians as the only ones still associated with this barmy statement. I do not know even where to begin being angry with all this.

Not only because of the very idea of having my faith connected with what is best named paranoid conspiracy theories, and not only because it attempts to curb free speech – even if this had turned out to be a gay lobby agenda, the rights for gays to promote their ideas is still my right to promote mine – but also because there is so much more worse garbage out there which is openly poisoning children’s minds, and where it is evident every day that the children copy what they see – in terms of violence and aggressive behaviour.

In fact, I have even had to remove a channel from or TV because our kids spent too much time watching cartoons that were clearly intended for an older audience, as they began learning violent behaviour from it. It took me about 45 seconds to exercise my right to choose in such a way, without having to call for government assistance. And another few minutes to explain to them why it is bad to hit people. Problem solved.

And therein lies probably the most ridiculous thing about all this. If you are uncomfortable with a flannel doll wearing pink, carrying a handbag, and having a triangle on its head, then, for crying out loud, switch to another channel or remove it from your dial. No-one is holding a gun to your head and forcing your kids to watch it.

Shutdown, A Survival Guide

Today was one of those days that you might call Survival Day here in Belgium. It’s a public holiday – the day after Pentecost – which means that all is closed. Complete shutdown.

Fine, I certainly think people need time off. But when it goes over more than a normal weekend, life suddenly becomes an exercise in Urban Survival.

Cash is first. Cash dispensers (ATMs) usually dry up on day three of any given long weekend, in central Brussels usually on Sunday nights I am told, so the first thing to do is to raid the hole in the wall. I normally don’t like to carry a lot of cash around for security reasons – cash in my wallet is in great danger of being spent – but since I’ve had quite a lot of problems with my VISA card lately, you can’t rely on your card being useful.

Then comes food and supplies. Supermarkets are usually shut on Sundays, basically with no exceptions when it comes to the usual chains, and they remain as shut on extra holidays. At the same time, all family will be in to eat every meal at home, you might want to get a little extra this-or-that for your extra time together, and oh maybe someone might drop by as well. So, next thing is to work out your prep list and try to foresee all the variables that come with having kiddies; for instance, sudden surges in milk consumption.

(I have many times considered buying a cow, which would take care of the need for mowing the lawn as well, but it probably couldn’t keep up with the demand in this family. In fact, I was delighted when we first moved here to see that our farming neighbour had three cows just across the fence, and I quickly asked him in my lousy Dutch if we couldn’t buy milk directly from him. He burst out laughing and laughing, and then gave me a basic biology lesson explaining why a cow without a calf doesn’t produce any milk. OK, I thought, I’m a city boy, fair cop; but then it turned out that he’d been sharing this amusing story about those crazy city-folks for foreigner newcomers with half the village.)

Then you need to make itiniary plans. Belgium has roughly ten million inhabitants, but I can assure you that there are at least twenty million cars out on the motorway around Brussels alone during any given rush hour during normal workdays. During long holidays, the Belgian roads are little else than oblong car parks. So if you plan on going somewhere – get out early. And no, traffic doesn’t get lighter during the day because everyone else would be heading out early too – we’ve tried that; the less said about that day, the better.

This time, I thought I had it all worked out. Every food storage area in our apartment was properly stocked. We were staying at home to relax. I had the cash I needed. But of course we ran out of milk anyway, and then, well, er, there’s no easy way of saying this, but… ehrm, let’s just skip the reasons, and say that we ran out of toilet paper, and leave it at that. And when you do, especially for the very reasons that cause you to run out of such items, you simply must go and get more.

Luckily, we have by now mapped the waterholes for such events. There’s a lovely little shop down in central Sint-Pieters-Leeuw called (simply) Deli Traiteur, which has assumed the mission of staying open whenever everyone else stays shut. It’s great business for them, and they’re pretty well stocked as well. AND they’re always nice and friendly. AND the shop is neat and inviting. AND they always happily take my VISA card.

I just checked their web site and it turns out that they have more than twenty branches all over Brussels, all with generous opening hours. I haven’t visited them all, of course, but if they’re as good as the one we go to, they’re well worth being your first call in case of holiday horror. They’re a bit expensive, which is why we don’t shop there regularly, but on a shutdown day, it’s worth every cent. Bedankt!

As a little irrelevant twist, our local Deli Traiteur this time was displaying a set of premium spices from the Swedish company Santa Maria – in a display box with all text in Swedish. Quite a strange sight. Which you won’t get to see here, of course, because I forgot to take my camera as usual.

(By the way, there’s a famous news photographer in the US, also named Jonathan Newton. Maybe all the photographic DNA from the gene pool of all Jonathan Newtons has been sucked out to him… that would explain one or two things. Any other Jonathan Newton out there who is as bad at taking pictures as I am who can confirm this?)

I Don’t Remember

I Don’t Remember, I don’t recall/I got no memories of anything at all…

I’m quite sure there is something I’ve promised to do on Saturday, but I just can’t remember what it is!! Isn’t that scary when it happens?

I have a flashback memory snippet of me being asked to do something, then turning to my wife to double-check that there wasn’t anything else going on on that day, and then accepting. But what was it?

Readers of this blog must be getting worried about my mnemonic capacity (or, rather, the lack of it) – just think of this, and this, and some other blog entry that I’ve forgotten.

I bought a couple of upgraded RAM memory sticks for my stationary computer the other day – no, I haven’t forgotten to put them in, I’m just waiting for the heatsinks that I ordered separately – and that made me wonder why on Earth I can’t order some extra RAM for my brain as well.

However, at least you have an explanation for the periods when there are no new entries on this blog: I’ve probably just forgotten to write something new.

Now, there was something else I was going to say about that… oh bother.

Euromyths, Part 2 (Long Overdue)

Yes, I did promise a few more juicy myths about the European Union quite some time ago, but hey, I’ve been working. 🙂 Anyway, here’s an old favourite:

Myth: The EU headquarters hosts a multi-storey super-computer, called “The Beast”, which tracks the movements of all people on the face of the Earth. This is a predecessor of the forthcoming Antichrist rule of the world.

This is a myth that has only started to fade, probably to the improvements of technology, which has by now made most people realise that there is no longer any need for any multi-storey computers; the computer you use to read this is probably more powerful. Nevertheless, it is still put forward as truth, as I noticed when doing some quick research for this blog entry, and was pretty widespread for many years among many of my fellow Christians who believe that the EU in some way will be either the personification itself or a vehicle for the anti-Christian rule of the last days foretold in the Book of Revelation.

I shall deal more in detail with the idea that the EU has such a function in a forthcoming Euromyths blog entry, because it deserves some attention in itself. However, let’s get past this computer stuff first.

This is actually a myth whose origins, unusually enough, can be traced.

It all started with a novel, Behold A Pale Horse by Joe Musser, published in 1970; a fictionalised account of the last days as foretold in the Bible, in the same genre as would later be popularised by the Left Behind series. As the account goes, there was a mention of such a computer in that book, which was later put to graphic depiction when the book was made into a film, The Rapture. The film was marketed with some mock newspaper-like publications running “the story” about the super-computer.

Apparently, the disclaimer on these fake papers was either too obscure or not prominent enough, and the story was picked up as fact and passed on. Joe Musser himself is said to have been shocked that his fiction was being reported as fact, and has tried to refute it, but to no avail.

It is easy to see why this fiction was so readily believed by so many. Remember, in those days and for many more years to come, computers were very unknown and very scary. They were usually seen as anonymous threat, often possessing some kind of human-like attributes. When I grew up in the 1980s, for instance, there was a very real and vivid public debate about how the computerisation of society would increasingly steal people’s jobs, if not making humans obsolete altogether in one area after another. The whole Terminator film series builds on this very premise, and “The Computer” was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1982, further cementing its status as bearing human qualifications.

For generations, Christians have read the last Book of the Bible with varying degrees of fear and awe, anxiously trying to identify the various characters there in their own time. Come the early 1970s, suddenly things would have fallen into place: ‘Of course… the Beast won’t be a real human… it’s a computer.’

Add to that the general ignorance of what computers were in those days, as well as the limited possibilities to check urban legends during the pre-Information Age, and you have fertile ground for computer lore.

One might think that the idea would have fallen on its own unreasonability, to anyone who would stop and think. In those days, the then Common Market that would later evolve into the EU only had six member states, becoming nine in 1973. Violently gigantic chunks of the globe were outside of the Common Market’s reach; not only the Americas or Africa, but the entire Communist world, which certainly would never have fed the Western world any details of its inhabitants!

To make things even more complicated, not even the member states themselves had much track of their citizens; Britain, for instance, one of the new members in 1973, lacks a central population register to this day. To imagine that there would be any interest, capacity, or even resources within the Common Market of a few Western European nations to go out and e.g. identify inhabitants of remote tribal villages in Borneo’s jungles or Australia’s outback is so outrageous that it should have made even the most hardened conspiracy theorist stop and think.

Satellites were rare and certainly not commercially available, wireless communication clumsy, and digital technology in its infancy – the sheer logistic and technological problems of such a scheme would have been impossible to overcome. And then there is the question of who on Earth would have been prepared to pay for such a venture, bearing in mind how picky member states havd usually been about not paying one penny more than necessary to the Common Market/EEC/EC/EU and getting as much as possible back.

As readers of this blog know, the most commonly named location for this machine – the famous Berlaymonster – was gutted between 1991 and 2004. There are no records of any such technology being either found or transported from that site, nor has anyone who would have worked at the site come forward with any such revelation. And mind you, they have come forward in other contexts, most notably to complain about the hazards they were exposed to when tearing out all the asbestos in there.

And, once again, needless to say, computer technology of the 1970s won’t exactly let you play your favourite PlayStation games.

It is true that the EU has traditionally been quite advanced in terms of databases – for Community legislation and the like; in the same way as we now take for granted that most official documents produced by any government are available over the Internet.

If ever I come across any suspicious-looking computer equipment at the EU, I promise you’ll be the first to know. Until then, you can safely assume that this is a myth.

(Footnote: To avoid all misunderstanding, maybe I should add that I have not taken any of the above pictures at any computer centrals in any EU buildings. In fact, I have not taken them myself at all, but happily gleaned them from Wikimedia Commons’ Historical Computers category. They depict, from top to bottom, the SAGE AN/FSQ-7 at the American air defence NORAD; Harvard Mark I; an R2-D2-looking tin can from the now defunct Datasaab – believe it or not, called Datasaab D2!; and the ENIAC.)

Great News!

The three public transport bodies in Belgium have agreed to introduce one single card, that will entitle to travels on all oublic transport in the entire country. Now that’s great news, and something that a number of other countries have yet to even think of!

That means that I can actually take the bus that stops some 300 metres from my doorstep to the metro some three kilometres away, without having to buy two tickets. That is in theory the case today (although you can go around it if you remember to buy Brussels public transport tickets in advance, because you can use them on the Flemish buses in the outskirts of Brussels, whereas the Flemish bus tickets are not valid on Brussels buses, trams or metro trains.)

The only catch is that this new unified ticket is to be introduced “towards 2010”.

Hm.

That means it will probably take another 20 years or so until it actually works. Nice idea though.