Tuesday, May 31, 2005 

Taking Pot Shots at China's Exports

In the past month, several little news items came to my attention in the form of public caution announcements. The offending products included a baby's pacifier, popcorn popper, a steam iron and a vacuum cleaner.

Warning the public about potentially dangerous products is generally a good thing except when the public is only being warned about defective products coming from one particular country. In this case, that country is China. And all these announcements were published within a one month time frame...right around the same time when the EU and the US were issuing warnings to China about its surge in global textile exports (April 24, 2005 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4478101.stm). The Greek media has been complaining for several months now about the sudden increase in Chinese shops opening up and putting Greek shops out of business.

I guess the national trade union and trade ministry strategy seems to be this: they can't keep the imports from flooding our shores, then they may as well concoct what looks to be a smear campaign against Chinese manufactured goods to punish businesses who import them and the customers who buy them. The only consumer warnings I've read regarding non-Chinese goods relate to food preparation and distribution scandals (FAGE yoghurt, Greek honey, "Para red"--a food dye, mad cows and cancerous chickens and it took well over 12 months to compile those 6 warnings and they were a lot more dangerous than a vacuum cleaner which has "a tendency to come apart, causing electric shock." Millions of people were affected by the food scandals and the government was left with no choice but to announce them. With regards to the Chinese goods, it looks like all it takes it one or two people to call up the Development ministry to complain about popcorn or irons to get them announced.

The answer to the burgeoning Chinese exports is not to be found in taking pot shots at Chinese exports but for the EU as a whole, to enforce its quota limits on Chinese goods unless China voluntarily reduces its exports.

Popcorn popper & Steam iron (April 29, 2005)

Vacuum cleaner (May 27, 2005)

Pacifier (May 31, 2005)

Thursday, May 26, 2005 

May I See Some ID Please?

The UK and the United States are seriously considering the implementation of identity cards for its citizens. The governments claim that the cards are needed in order to combat terrorism and illegal immigration and to prevent identity theft. So far, they have yet to show any proof that national identity cards will, in fact, achieve these aims. Before inflicting this idea upon their populations, shouldn't they at least PROVE that they work? All I've read so far are personal opinions about the viability of such a scheme from government mouthpieces who back the idea but nothing which resembles concrete proof.

Considering that most countries in Europe already have national identity cards and they still face ballooning numbers of illegal immigrants, identity theft and terrorism, I don't see how the UK and US still think it's the cure-all they imagine it to be.

In Greece, we have identity cards as well which can be issued from the age of 14 and up. A lot of people still have the pictures of themselves at that age on their ID cards and they're over 40 now. Their addresses have changed several times since their ID card was issued but has not been updated on the cards. They're quite easy to duplicate since they're all handprinted and any person with a 300dpi laser printer could manufacture a sharper fingerprint image than the one the government affixes to the cards. Of course, not all European countries have such primitive ID cards but it doesn't seem to matter just how technologically advanced they are, they don't seem to prevent Spain from thwarting terrorist attacks or Germany from receiving thousands of illegal immigrants each year.

Israel is a prime example. They have identity cards with biometric information on them and they were subject to 227 terrorist attacks in 2004. While some people may claim that if they didn't have the cards, more attacks would have occurred. But again, they can provide no proof of it. What is certain is that ID cards definitely do not eliminate terrorism.

As far as the claim that it will also prevent identity theft, even the new cards with retinal scans and biometric information aren't foolproof. I would think having one card replacing all other forms of identification would be a counterfeiter's dream come true. Instead of having to forge driver's licences, social security cards, healthcare cards, they can save themselves half the trouble and just concentrate on forging one card instead.

The logistics of implementing compulsory identity cards outweighs its usefulness especially when we all carry so many forms of identification already. The only way a national identity card scheme would work is:
  • if 100% of the population applied for them and carried them with them 100% of the time (do you honestly believe a criminal would apply for one?)
  • if 100% of law enforcement officers enforced this rule (ie., not one pregnant woman or 90 year old man were given a reprieve if they didn't have the ID with them)
  • if 100% of government workers who handled the issuance of the cards were 100% honest (how hard do you think it would be to bribe a $10/hour civil servant to input false information?)
  • if 100% of the people's data could be successfully recorded onto the card (already the card's are less than 96% accurate for certain segments of the population)
  • if 100% of the technology used to create and read the cards were 100% accurate (present technology fails to recognize 1 in 25 people)

Most of us already have birth certificates, driver's licences, passports, social security cards and insurance cards. Do we really need even more? I just can't wait to blog the implementation of mandatory daily DNA tests just to get on public transportation. Even better...let's employ citizen informants. It's cheap, effective and most people just love to rat out their neighbours. If it works for the IRS, it can work on terrorism, illegal immigration and identity thieves too.

Sunday, May 22, 2005 

My Number One is Eurovision's Number One

Greece's planets must be aligned. After winning the Euro 2004 Soccer, hosting the 2004 Olympics, Greece won Eurovision for the first time last night. Helena Paparizou managed to beat out 23 other contestants and rack up 230 points to take home the Eurovision title. In 2002, she was part of the duo, "Antique" and managed to place 3rd, with the song "I Would Die For You". Although, I believe that song was much better than this year's entry "My Number One" but she didn't have much of a stage presence then and subsequently lost out to the Turkish entrant, Sertab who had a great stage show. This year's competition saw a much more seasoned performer with a strong voice, good performance and dance routine even if the song wasn't as impressive as her first one with Antique.

Malta's entrant, Chiara came in second. She had the best voice of the evening but unfortunately, Eurovision fans wanted more than just a good voice and Chiara, alone on the stage during her performance, had to settle for second place. I guess Europe has had enough of Celine Dion-Titanic wannabe songs.

As for the rest of the entrants, they looked like auditions for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Campy routines, bad english and the overuse of kettle drums (which I blame entirely on Ruslana's "Wild Dances" 2004 win) ensured that the majority of them will only be remembered on Eurovision's "Worst Of" clips.

Highlights of the Evening
Voting-The Importance of Having Friends
The Balkan countries made maximum use of their voting power by supporting each of their neighbours when the points were handed out. Germany's Gracia was left virtually friendless with only Monaco and Moldova giving her two points each. I think Gracia thought she was competing for the Yodelvision award with her completely forgettable song "Run and Hide". Turkey and Albania, long-time targets of Greece's national wrath, supported Paparizou by awarding her maximum points.

Performances-Substituting Kitsch for Talent
From the sublime to the ridiculous. On one end of the spectrum, we have a tasteful, if not bland performance by Israel's Shiri Maimon, to Norway's Wig Wam--the answer to the question of what happens when Kiss meets the Village People. My favourite song and performance of the evening goes to Denmark's Jakob Sveistrup. He had a great voice, great song and a good routine and didn't include kettle drums in his performance. Spain's entry, Son de Sol a.k.a. the Los Mustard girls, should have won the Peacock award for their colourful costumes. The Best of Mediocrity award goes to Cyprus. The rest of the entrants were either completely boring or frighteningly horrible.

Most of the songs were performed in English...or an attempt at English. Some of the worst lyrics ever written in the history of music, habitually find their way into Eurovision. I prefer contestants to sing in their own language if they can't sing a song which makes sense in another. Call me crazy, but it's Eurovision, not "Americavision" (as my 11 year old son remarked), therefore having songs in a variety of languages makes it that much more European.
Here are some examples:
Switzerland-Cool vibes, why don't you kill me? (If they're cool, then she wouldn't ask to die)
Greece-You will be the sun into my raining season. (One of her lyricist's obviously didn't pass the Cambridge Proficiency exam)
Albania-Spread your voice (The song lyrics say "raise your voice" but she was singing "spread your voice". The raising I could do, maybe she can explain how I can 'spread' a voice.)
Romania-I can find you anywhere, you're not there. (If she can find you anywhere, then it stands to reason that you should be there to find.)
Russia-Her lyrics were grammatically correct but the song was political in nature (singing about America's lax gun controls) and since Ukraine was told rewrite their lyrics to make them less political, I would think the fact she singled out America to criticize would have subjected her to the same rules. I guess that's because it's open season on America as of late, so it doesn't count.

Ukraine's DJ Pasha hosted the event but after two hours of listening to him audition for the US Boxing Federation's announcer position, I was more than happy that the Greek commentator drowned him out. A word of advice Pasha...not every word spoken in English needs to be an attempt to get Mike Tyson back into the ring.

So that's it for another year. I'm quite happy NOT to blog the fact that Greek wasted the 700,000 euros budgeted to bring Helena to the forefront of the competition. Her win made good use of that money. I just hope Greece doesn't plan to build another stadium to host the event in 2006!

**Check out www.eurovision.tv if you're one of the 14 hardcore Eurovision fans out there.

Saturday, May 14, 2005 

May the Best Cabbage Win

Well, he’s gone and done it again. Greek PM Costas Karamanlis has allowed yet another political fiasco to contaminate his government. After all his speeches and promises to clean up the corruption, kickbacks and inefficiencies encompassing Greek politics, he has decided to make matters worse by enabling a controversial decision which was to reward MPs who have lost their seats in re-election or to failed MPs trying to get elected. He wants to pay them all 3000 euros a month for the next two years to compensate for the fact that the citizens of Greece don’t want them in politics. Just as soon as the public was made aware of his plans, he agreed that it wasn't such a great idea and the decision was shelved for further debate. Why can’t the man just realize the futility and ultimate public insult of such ideas BEFORE he agrees to them? What is the method to his madness?

As I mentioned before, this is not the first time he’s come up with ridiculous political blunders. His self-hyped flagship law aimed at reducing corruption in awarding state contracts was uniformly shot down and criticised by the EU for not doing a thing to tackle corruption but to mask it. Anyone with an IQ of a cabbage can see that the root of the problem lies not just with companies who win the state contracts but more so with the officials who award the tenders.

Karamanlis also had the bright idea of making movie store owners handwrite receipts (this link is in Greek) for all their customers when renting and returning movies because he KNOWS they’re all stealing but he just somehow can’t figure out how so he decides more bureacracy is needed and penalizes all stores for the supposed actions of a few. This law, when put into effect, will most likely put a lot of people out of business. Would you wait for 20 minutes to rent a movie and another 20 minutes to return it so the clerks can write down your name, address, and movie rental details? Would you wait hours while 10 other people in front get theirs done first? No, of course not...you’ll pay the 5 euros for a pirated DVD. Well done, Karamanlis...put tax-paying movie stores out of business. Promote the piracy business and force movie store employees into the unemployment lineups.

I’d like to know just what he was doing as Leader of the Opposition for the 7 years preceding his election as PM. Did he not expect to get elected and therefore, had absolutely no viable restructuring plan ready for Greece? Or did he just think that whining about PASOK and digging up dirt on them would be a perfectly acceptable job description for himself for the next 4 years as PM?

If his political blunders didn’t have such serious consequences for Greek citizens, I’d think his election was some sort of new reality show...Survivor: Politics Island-Greece. We need to vote him off the island. Unfortunately, in Greece, there won't be a Survivor sequel since there aren't any new, competent candidates to take his place.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005 

Don't Write Off Greece Yet

In my blogs, I've often described a lot of things in Greece with a decidedly negative angle...from religious & political scandals to society in general. I think the time has to come to write something positive about life in Greece because there's no point complaining about things if there wasn't something worthwhile TO save. I certainly wouldn't live here if I really thought there weren't any wonderful aspects about Greece. I'd be wasting my time and your time. I'll relate to you some of the reasons while I'm still here and will do my best to refrain from any pessimistic comments in the spirit of writing a positive blog.

The Beauty of Greece
If you've ever visited Greece, you will most definitely be informed within hours of your arrival, that Greece is THE most beautiful country on the planet. Although, that statement is hyperbolic, they're certainly not lying about the fact that this country is indeed beautiful. You're never far from water and it really IS that blue. The islands ARE everything you've been told by your travel agent. I've been to several islands and the two which stand out the most in my mind are Santorini and Milos. Santorini is famous for its houses built into the rock face and the beautiful views of the caldera which grace just about every travel poster you've ever seen of Greece. Milos is famous for Venus de Milo (the armless statue) and some of the best beaches I've ever had the pleasure of visiting. The water is so clean that you can see the tiny little fish swimming (and sometimes biting) around you as you enjoy the cloudless sky above you.

The History of Greece
Coming from Canada, where we class anything over a hundred years old as "history" it's quite overwhelming to actually stand on the steps of the Acropolis...to experience the acoustics of Epidavros theatre...to visit people in their homes which are over 500 years old. I absolutely love reading about and visiting historic sites. I could spend every day doing it. I have newfound respect for even present day Greeks who have lived through two world wars, foreign occupation, starvation, a military junta and countless political blunders which have made their lives almost unbearable. It's one thing to read about it and quite another to talk to someone who's lived through it and still manage to say "Zoi einai oraia" (life is beautiful) when they tell me about their experiences. I'm in awe of them and am humbled by them when I dare to complain about the price of vitamins.

The People of Greece
I know I've talked a lot about the racism that is prevalent here but there's another side to Greeks that's not often mentioned. They are survivors. Their language is the oldest in Europe and their currency was the oldest up until the Euro took its place. Even the name "Europe" is Greek in origin. They are also wonderful with children. It's been said the Greece is the land of 10 million babysitters and that's not an overstatement. When I first arrived here, I was constantly pulling my son away from Greeks who wanted to hold his hand or hug him all the while telling me how beautiful he was. I come from a society where its basically forbidden for a stranger to hug a child or sometimes even talk to them without the parent's permission. I never realized just how much children are the centre of attention here. They don't just tolerate them, they sincerely love them. Anyone's child. It's not uncommon to see children out at tavernas late at night running around while strangers tell you "den mpeirazei" (it's no bother) when your child has decided he'd rather eat with them than you. Having lived in three countries, I can definitely say my son thrived on the attention he received from Greeks and is the better for it.

As much as I've been a victim of profiteering Greeks here, I've also been the recipient of their hospitality and trust. Once, when I had to get a prescription filled at a pharmacy, I underestimated the cost of the items and didn't bring enough money with me. As I was about to leave the pharmacy to go to the bank machine a few blocks away to get the money, the pharmacist told me not to bother since she knew I would pay her back the next time. I tried to argue with her to keep my medication until I returned with the rest of the money, she wouldn't hear of it and practically forced the products on me. This has never happened to me anywhere else but Greece. I didn't even know her. My regular pharmacist sent me to her since he didn't have the medication in stock to fill my prescription. This has also happened to my son more times than I can count. He's been going to corner stores in the neighbourhood and they've probably given him as much for free as what he's had to pay over the years. If they like you, they just like you. Where else in the world can a 4 year old have a 'tab' at a corner store but in Greece?

I've also met some of the most honest people in Greece. As absent-minded as I am a lot of the time, I've left my cell phone, wallet and/or shopping behind in stores or cafes more times than I can remember and each and every time, a waiter or another patron has tracked me down on the street to give them back to me. I hope I never get used to that kind of honesty so that I never take it for granted.

The Way of Life
As frustrating as it's often been for me to wait while a store clerk finishes her phone conversation or the rest of her coffee, it's also reassuring that people aren't always in such a stressful rush to get things done. Many of them do take the time to ask how you're doing, how your family's doing and many will remember the names of your family (even the ones they've never met) still amazes me. It's great to go out for a meal and not be rushed out by an overly attentive waiter or to sit and have a coffee with a friend for two hours and the most the waiter will do is ask if you'd like a backgammon board as well. I like the fact that Greeks do take the time out to enjoy life...to socialize....to play card games...to take more than just a week off a year for vacation and not feel guilty about it. Greeks know the meaning of working to live instead of living to work.

Greek Cuisine
I'm a vegetarian and I'm very lucky to live in Greece because of the wide range of excellent vegetable dishes you can get here. Greek food is delectable. Who knew eggplants and zucchini could BE so tasty? Even if you're not a vegetarian, you won't be able to complain about being served pastitsio, soutzoukakia or youvetsi. Most of the recipes are simple and easy to make and more importantly...delicious to eat. I've been here over seven years now and I can safely say that I do not miss North American food even though it's easily available.

There's a lot wrong with Greece but there's a lot right with it too and that's why I stay and why I believe that by trying to enforce some changes within this country, I won't have any reason to ever leave here.