Live from Brussels

Musings from a bored analyst/project-manager.
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Friday, February 28, 2003
 
Honeymoon Planning

And now for something completely different...
As some of you might already know, I'm getting married in July. A marriage implies a honeymoon vacation, naturally. The future wife and I are planning on a month long road trip through the U.S.A. We already know we want to see Washington D.C. (White House, Capitol, constitution, ...), New York (Statue of Liberty, skyline, Ground Zero memorial,...), Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore and the whales in Boston (I've already seen them, but she hasn't), Las Vegas, ...
Now, I know many of my readers are from the U.S.A., so I would like to ask you a question: which things do we absolutely *have* to see when we are over there? Any suggestions welcome by mail or in the comments!

 
More on the Belgian Army

Despite the flap between our defense minister and the U.S. press about the state of the Belgian military, recruiting doesn't seem to be suffering. On the morning news on the radio they said the number of candidates has gone up from 1300 to 1800 compared to the same two months last year. A spokesperson said this was probably due to the increased visibility of the armed forces (for example while cleaning up the beaches here after an oil disaster), international deployments (to Bosnia and Afghanistan) and maybe also due to the economic crisis.
Also, in order to prove to the Wall Street Journal that it was full of it when it wrote that Belgian soldiers are just barely good for combatting bad breath, Belgium's main 'funny human interest' TV show 'Man bijt hond' ('Man Bites Dog') had a quite funny segment yesterday. They went to a military base and showed the offending article to the soldiers, many of whom were pretty peeved by it. Then they all showed their military-grade toothpaste, chewing gum and other assorted pieces of soap, washcloths and shampoo bottles, in order to prove they were not the filthy swine the WSJ took them to be.
That ought to show them Yankees not to mess with us!
Right.

Thursday, February 27, 2003
 
Speeding in Belgium

A few days ago a law was approved here that severely increases the fines for speeding. It is now possible, for instance, to get a €250 (=~ $250) fine for doing seven km/h too fast in a 30 km/h area. In miles per hour, that works out to 4.4 mph too fast in a 18.6 mph area!
And you know what? It won't make one bit of difference on the road: the chance of getting caught is simply too low here. This entire law was again an example of politicians needing to look good, so instead of tackling the real problem they just passed another law making certain behaviour a bit more illegal than it already is.
Compared to the U.S., European drivers are already low-flying speed maniacs, since in most countries here the speed limit on the highway is set at 120 or 130 km/h (75 or 80 mph). I don't think I can remember a part of my Boston-Florida-Boston road trip a few years ago where I could do 80, and just a few stretches of 75.
In Germany, by contrast, there isn't even a speed limit on the highways at all! Just an 'advised speed', but everyone is free to (and does) ignore it.
In Belgium, there is a limit, but many people routinely break it, easily doing 150 or 160 km/h (94 or 100 mph), even where it is technically really dangerous.
But in Germany, there is one crucial difference: on certain stretches of highway (mostly in curves, or in busy places), a speed limit is posted... and everybody sticks to it! It is a quite common sight there to be overtaken by a Porsche doing 200 km/h (125 mph), and see it heavily going into the brakes ten seconds later because there is a sign with a speed limit.
And you know why?
Because behind that sign, usually there is a police cruiser with a speedgun waiting...
Something Belgian politicians apparently don't understand.

 
Live from...

Many people have been linking lately to a rather new and quite interesting blog: LT SMASH
Live from the Sandbox
True tales of a reservist deployed to a place with a lot of sand...

Wednesday, February 26, 2003
 
Somebody Tell Me This Is Satire...

Some very good writing at X-Entertainment: The Worst Breakfast Ever. Does this kind of stuff really exist, or is it all just an invention by America-hating academics trying to spread nasty memes about U.S. culinary habbits?

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
 
Belgian Terrorist Set Free

Today Pierre Carette was released from prison after serving seventeen years (which, ironically, is more than most people serve in Belgium who are sentenced to life imprisonment). This Carette character was the head guy of the CCC (celules communistes combattantes), a Marxist terrorist group who organised attacks on 'symbols of capitalism' during the eighties.
In one such attack, two firemen died when a car bomb exploded. Naturally, firemen today aren't happy about his release: a week ago they even handed over a petition with a thousand signatures asking that he be kept in prison.
What is worse is that he is totally unrepentant: earlier, in an interview, Carette said:
I refuse to sign political statements in which I denounce communism. When I close the prison door behind me the red flag of the proletariat and the communist revolution will be proudly held up high.
As Carette walked out of jail today, he was shielded by sympathizers against the press. I heard one of them speak on the radio: "Yes, there were attacks, but to us those were political actions..." "... in which two people died!", the reporter interjected. "Yes, that was an unfortunate coincidence", came back the reply.
For my part, if Pierre Carette is hit by a fire-engine tomorrow and gets run over two or three times by accident, I will also consider it a coincidence, although it is debatable if it will be unfortunate or not.

P.S.: Is anyone surprised that Reuters calls Carette a Belgian leftwing guerrilla leader in its headline?

 
More Video

Perhaps a little light on the reasons for war, but some pretty cool video-clips can be seen over at GrouchyMedia.com.

 
Two Sentences...
CNN.com - U.S., U.K., Spain draft resolution on Iraq - Feb. 24, 2003
OP1: Decides that Iraq has failed to take the final opportunity afforded to it resolution 1441 (2002),
OP2: Decides to remain seized of the matter.

Naturally, there are more sentences, but these two are the most important ones, called the 'operative clauses' of the resolution. Shall we have a look at their meaning?
Let's see, last things first: according to this page, the last sentence is pretty much the standard closing line of any U.N. Security Council resolution. A formula, with little or no meaning. So we can disregard this line.
Which only leaves one other line: clear as day, no ambiguity. Right to the point: it was a 'last chance' said 1441, and it was not taken (and 'serious consequences' were to follow if it wasn't, but no need to repeat that here).
The more I think about it, the more brilliant I find it: 'serious consequences', generally understood to mean 'war', were already approved unanimously. The only thing left to do was to check if the final opportunity was taken or not.
Which, by any reasonable standard, it turns out not to have been. So, no debate about war or peace is needed any more during the Security Council session in order to vote this particular new resolution, just looking at the facts should suffice. Voting against this resolution would be like denying the light of day. Yet voting 'no' is the only thing that could avert a war now. So Bush has done it again: if they vote 'yes', then war it is. If they vote 'no', the countries doing so would look like they have completely abandoned reason and lost touch with reality, all this in front of the assembled world press... And since the opposing votes were 'unreasonable', the war would begin just the same...

Monday, February 24, 2003
 
The Alliance of Liberty

Remember brain-terminal.com? They were the site that had the hilarious video of the guy interviewing the peace protesters. I had a look around their site, and found this:
>bt: The Alliance of Liberty << World Affairs
We, the free people of the world, in recognition of the fact that freedom is a gift given to us through the selfless sacrifice of our ancestors, and in agreement on the belief that it is our moral obligation to share this gift with those who were not fortunate enough to be born into it, declare ourselves united in an Alliance of Liberty, whose purpose is to secure the freedom of every human everywhere.

Interesting!

 
Great Clips

Just found these over at lvb.net, a Belgian blog site in Dutch: two Windows media files captured from some E.U. newsfeed. Both are nice illustrations of the pompous character of Jacques Chirac, who, as it seems, likes to gesticulate a lot.
The first clip is the famous press conference where he insults the Eastern European countries wanting to become E.U. members, saying they missed a great chance to shut op. Look out for the moment around the 2.45 minute mark, where he doesn't understand a question which is spoken with a rather thick English accent. The second clip is just Chirac gesticulating wildly at the Greek delegation in what seems to be some hallway discussion.

 
"The Bravest of all the Peoples of Gaul"

The above quote is from Julius Caesar, one of the greatest Roman generals and emperors ever, and he was talking about the tribe of the Belgians. It is a quote which every schoolchild in Belgium knows by heart. But the rest of the sentence, quite understandably, is less well known. It talks about the reason of this courage: the Belgians back then were the people in Gaul who lived farthest away from the Roman possesions, so they were least weakened by trade and cultural contacts compared to the other tribes Caesar encountered. In other words, they were fierce barbarians...
Quite a difference with today's military strength and reputation: a few days ago, a Wall Street Journal article totally blasted the Belgian army. The article was kindly scanned and forwarded to me by reader Richard Robson, and here are some choice quotes:
Belgium, for example, employs hundreds of military barbers, musicians and other personnel who aren't likely to be called into battle. Yet Belgium doesn't have the money to replace aging helicopters or conduct regular combat-training exercises.

In Belgium, military unions are as powerful as anywhere on the Continent. On King Albert's birthday last June, a. holiday for the Belgian military, unions deployed thousands of soldiers to Brussels to demand a raise in vacation pay. Soldiers chanted, drank beer and banged their aluminum mess bowls. "Show me the money," one officer shouted to a passing police van. The protest grew so rowdy that police cooled demonstrators off with a water cannon. But it was a success: An emergency session of the Belgian cabinet agreed to give soldiers-already eligible for six weeks' annual vacation—a raise in holiday benefits valued at about $500 each.

The average age of a Belgian soldier is 40-compared with 28 in the U.S. and 29 in the U.K. Most Belgian military personnel can retire at 56 with full pension benefits. The Defense Ministry acknowledges too many of its soldiers are too old, and says it is trying to recruit younger people. But Gerard Harveng, a spokesman for Defense Minister Andre Flahaut, says, "I'm not sure that the mission of the Belgian military is to fight. " Instead, Belgium sees its military role mostly focused on peacekeeping operations.

Belgium has cut its military payroll by half since the height of the Cold War, to 44,000. But it still spends some 67% of its annual defense budget of about $2.5 billion on pay and benefits and only about 5.4% on equipment. The U.S., with an annual defense budget of $366 billion, spends 22% on equipment, according to NATO.


There is more, but most of it are more absurd examples of having six different military bands, inadequate helicopters, or paying military doctors full-time wages for four hour workdays.
Naturally, André "Napoleon" Flahaut, Belgium's Defense minister, is "up in arms" about this. Well, maybe "antiquated arms", or "outdated arms". He claims all of this is just "negative reporting", and questioned the motives of the journalist in question.
As to the meat of the matter, no reply. But he has demanded an gotten a right-of-answer from the WSJ, so along with my faithful readers I await his reaction.
Meanwhile, though, another small scandal has erupted around Flahaut and his army: it appears that 'as a service to the community', the Belgian army sometimes provides logistical or other support for civilan manifestations and events. They could, for example, offer their bulldozers to help flatten or raise a motocross-track, stuff like that. Only now it turns out most of this 'community service' has taken place in Flahaut's electoral district, and that of Foreign Minister Louis Michel's.
Naturally, they both deny it.