Half-time

Neil Warnock was fired this week, the first Premier League casualty of the season, if you ignore Roy Keane’s departure at Villa. His team’s relegation was assured with him as boss. Warnock has one of the curious records. He is able to galvanise losing teams for a period in the Premier League or for long enough in the championship to achieve promotion but he is never able to sustain or build on it. Either his energy is sapped, his creativity runs out or his words fail to motivate better players or should I say, better paid players. He reminds me of an older Mick McCarthy, a manager I can’t help but respect, no matter what Roy Keane thinks.

So it’s halfway through the season and the table has taken a clear shape. The teams you expect to be at the top are there and those at the bottom are fairly predictable. Mid-table looks like mid-table. Bar Southampton and West Ham’s showings, most is as expected.

I’ll start bottom. What can i say? QPR are improving on the back of Charlie Austin’s form. Crystal Palace are paying for losing Tony Pulis while Burnley have impressed under Dyche, a guy I like but they won’t likely survive. Leicester are keen but done. Hull struggled after their Europa expectations were dashed but will be fine. The same could be said for Villa who have plenty of decent players in Vlaar, Guzman, Beneteke, Agbonlahor and Delph. Lambert has been hobbled by his assistant managers from last season and Keane this season. However despite looking like a highly stressed man, I rate him as a manager. I rate Poyet too but Sunderland are pretty poor and will continue to inhabit the lower reaches of the division. Alan Irvine of West Brom will get fired soon too.

Mid-table extends all the way to about 6th by the end of the season. Spurs are improving but may be have more realistic ideas this season. Swansea, Stoke, Newcastle will remain in the mix for 10th place. Everton ave been erratic but have quality throughout. Europa has done them too. Liverpool’s problems are more complex and varied. Firstly they overachieved last season. Their defence was never strong enough and hasn’t improved this season. But the goals have dried up sapping the confidence in the team. Gerrard is ageing. Henderson is a confidence player. Coutinho needs to start more. Balotelli was always a risk. Just look at how many clubs he has had already. Sturridge’s injuries takes deadly finishing out of the team. But mostly the Rodgers and the board bought too many squad players because they misunderstood their strength. They bought to compete in the Premier League and Europe. But they’ve yet to consolidate their top four status and won’t make it this year.

Outside of the top two, Southampton and West Ham could hang on for a Europa spot, crippling them next season. I rate Koeman and a lot of his buys especially Pelle. The other two teams to talk about are Arsenal and Manchester United. In truth, there is little to say about Arsenal that hasn’t been stated before. The same weaknesses exist at centre back and central midfield and Wenger seems incapable of spotting it. What Steve Bould adds to the defence is beyond me. Manchester United have such firepower they will always score. Add some steel in the middle and at the back, and they aren’t far from a class outfit.

At the top, it’s a battle between Chelsea and Manchester City. City have done well considering their injuries to key players in Kompany who for me isn’t as great as rated (similar to Hart) but then its difficult to look secure when you have Demichelas or Mangala alongside you. Aguero is the best centre forward in the world and they have no chance in Europe without him. The league is still Mourinho’s to lose. They have the best squad. They look the most ready. Costa was an excellent buy. Hazard is playing well and Terry is a rock. It’s Chelsea’s to win.

Predictions

Order: Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal, Spurs and Southampton
Relegated: Burnley, Crystal Palace, Leicester (in no order)

2014

It’s another year I am struggling to recall in all detail, not due to blurred memories but simply the volume of them. The year started in Qatar enjoying my last few months, taking a trip down memory lane to Japan and Korea, leaving Qatar to Russia, Serbia and the Balkans, back to England with a 10 day trip to Holland and Germany to finally see some cities like Dresden I’ve always wanted to see. I spent 10 weeks at Oxford over the summer and the autumn in Romania with side trips to Copenhagen and Oslo Florence and Pisa. Not bad.

I had my place at Leiden University but had to turn it down for Singapore. I feel I’ve achieved much this year. Relationships have solidified. I met some faces I haven’t seen for a decade or more. I ran courses at Oxford and I even started driving again. It’s been a contenting year.

Next year will begin in Singapore for work with wedding trips planned to Chiang Mai, Jakarta and Bangkok. And if you don’t know, we’re doing it together. Let’s see how much we can do 🙂

Newcomer of the Year – Katya, Dave Kennedy, Jerome

My Christ Its Been a Long Time – Marsha in Haarlem (since 2008). Jen in Florence (since 2005), Liz (2003), Scott, Yumi and Ponchan (2002) in Japan, Dan (2008) and Nev (2005) in Korea, Trish (2007)

Meal of the Year – Russian Borsch in St Petersburg

What the hell happened last night – Oli coming to visit Oxford, drinking in Seoul with Nev and Dan again

Sights of the Year – St Peterburg, Nuremburg, being back in Kyoto

Random Moment Award – watching Germany vs Ghana in Dresden with three Canadians who didn’t understand anything, a drunk German football team and a Japanese guy.

Cultural Event of the Year – Jan and Jelena’s wedding, Edward Scissorhands ballet

Sports event of the Year – Netherlands 5 Spain 1 at Jeroen’s BBQ in Holland. Germany beating Brazil

Film of the Year – Nightcrawler, Her

Musical moment of the Year – Jazz singers in Kyoto

Album of the Year – Spoon, Ex Hex, Todd Terje

Book of the Year – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Bar of the Year –  That bar I met Jan in in Belgrade

Scariest moment of the Year – driving a speedboat at ridiculous speeds in Qatar

Big Balls Moment – immigration in Japan. I had no idea if they would let me in.

Person of the Year

Honourable Mentions- Alex in Olso, Liz and Mayu in Japan, Dan in Seoul, my sister for Christmas

Would I do it all again? – of course

Korean Nuts

rs_560x415-141216122505-1024.Korean-Air-Macadamia-Nuts-121614You’ve all heard the story. The executive head of Korean Air service quality Cho Hyun-Ah was on a jet flying back from the US to Korea when she became upset at how the nuts were served in First Class where she was seated. No only upset, but she forced the chief flight attendant to bow down on the floor in apology and the captain to turn the jet around while it was taxi-ing for take-off to turf the flight attendant off the plane. His crime was to serve the nuts in the packet rather than in a dish.

As it turned out, it was the executive who had committed the crime. By returning the plane to the terminal, Korean Air had broken aviation law and were duly fined. The captain also seemed to forget he was in charge of the plane and not a passenger. The flight attendant seemed to forget where his dignity was and mostly the executive forgot where her humanity and considered behaviour was located. But that is hardly surprising once you learn a bit more about her.

For she was the daughter of the head of Korean Air which of course tells you how she got such a job. Korean Air is also owned by a huge conglomerate owned and run by one of the prominent families in Korea, known as the chaebols. It is these elite families who control much of Korean industry and wealth and usually benefitted from very cosy relationships with the former dictator Park Chun-Hee. He protected these companies economically and they became entrenched in the country running everything from industry to services. The famous Korean companies you know, Samsung, Hyundai and Kia etc were all granted privileged positions in return for kick backs.

Cho Yang-ho, chairman of Korean Air Lines speaks to the media at company's headquarter in SeoulKoreans have reacted two ways to this story. They have either laughed at the ridiculousness and with embarrassment or they have sought to think deeper about the role of privilege in Korea and the deference granted to such families. These positions are not in line with Korea’s modern, democratic outlook but with older, deeper cultural values.

The other part of the story I was to highlight is apology made by the President and his daughter after the event. These took place separately, a day apart. Firstly the father and President of the company came out in front of dozens of cameramen and journalist and made a short, prepared apology saying he had failed to raise his daughter correctly. His apology was to the nation, for Koreans traditionally believe in a form of brotherhood. This again is a throw back to the past. Present Korean are very individualistic and somewhat selfish.

Cho-Hyun-ah_3136202bThe next day the daughter mumbled an apology, with hair across her ashen faced, bowed and then quickly retreated. The idea of shame is very powerful in Korea and Koreans are quite emotional people. It is common to see Koreans crying in the street or girlfriends wailing after boyfriends or boyfriends stood there in stunned silence when they get dropped. Cho was deemed to have shamed the company, family and country with her outburst. She lost her job and was removed from all posts within the company.

The contriteness of the apology is what is most important. Making a comeback from such an apology is unthinkable right now especially within a high-profile company.  The ritualised public, performance of apology is deeply-humiliating and psychologically lasting. But she will be never thrown out the set. This familial connection and closeness is why in North Korea, when one member of the family is sent to prison camp, they send three generations too. Whole families are raised in these camps.

Korean media like a bit of gossip but it is mostly aimed at music and movie stars. It is usually trivial involving an affair or a bit of plastic surgery here and there. The elite families generally have their own way. It helps when you control some of the media of course but maybe not deeper questions can be publicly asked. Why did the spoilt brat of a chaebol family think she could get away with such petulant (and unprofessional) behaviour? Why did she take the nut insult with such insolence? How did she even have the role at her age? Why did the captain whither in the face of this woman and not understand his primary role?

Check Mate?

A friend recently said ‘despite having amazing chess players, Russia seldom can think more than a moves ahead.’

280x425Nice sounding analogy but in reality very few long-term geo-political policies work out. There are simply too many variables (actors, lack of information, random events). No one predicted the Wall would fall when it did. Many (including me) have predicted north Korea will collapse and it hasn’t. No one saw IS arriving and no one foresaw 9/11 and the consequences of that. Fukuyama’s repeat of Hegel’s End of History thesis proved equally myopic.

The idea of control is elusive and explains why Iraq fucked up because not only did the US not really a plan, it didn’t understand the region. This critique also extends to journalist who admire power (mostly right wingers or capitalist for obvious reasons). Forbes named Putin the most powerful man in the world in only May 2014.

However Russia is complex, far more so than the US in terms of the opaque nature of power, the coalitions that have to be made, the fact that almost no serious business makes an official profit but still makes an unofficial profit, the sheer breadth of the nation and the organisation it takes to run a country which is inefficient and constantly relies on soft and hard power inside the country to get anything done. Only China and India have greater complexity.

On this issue, the lack of diversity in the economy, the lack of bankable profit, the inefficiency of the state and its people, coupled with the difficulty getting standard investment due to instability, US & EU sanctions and a basic lack of trust of the state coupled with the crippling drop in oil prices by Saudi to primarily cripple Iran is royally fucking the state and as the state is the economy, the people.

Putin is in a tough position. He controls the media and it’s been very light on the crisis so far. However, news is out and it’s not long until panic begins to creep in. A run on the banks would be disastrous. Usually the West would be blamed and Putin is still popular enough to get away with it. But in the depths of winter, Russians are cynical enough. Right now the rouble will continue to sink. No traders are touching the rouble and Russians are hoarding dollars and trying to shift their money out of the country. In a country where serious wealth is controlled by only a few hundred people, this is ruinous for the rest.

What happens next? 1. Putin negotiates. 2. gets aggressive or 3. the state, meaning Putin, collapses. If its option 1, he will be playing for time. If its option 2, it gets scary but the West will have to face him down. If its option 3, in the long-term, that the best option but in reality, with the oligarchic power and so little political, civil society, it may simply be a shuffling of power rather than any fundamental changes.

Black Hearted Friday

Last week was St Nicholas’ Day here in Romania where you wake up to find chocolate and fruit in your shoes. It was cute. It turns out in my shoes St Nicholas knows what chocolates Olivia enjoys! It’s a tradition for kids but charming for all.

black-friday-2In the shops alongside the chocolates were signs for Black Friday, the horrible American sales day. America produces plenty of great products and ideas. Its scientific research is so far ahead of the rest of the world as a collective. It invests money and education which while often the basis of the capitalist creative destruction is also the driving force of our human survival, curing disease and furthering modernity.

Black Friday comes the day after Thanksgiving, the American tradition of family gathering to be thankful for what they have, originally to the Native Indians who helped the first immigrants survive the early winters. Later of course as noted in the Trail of Tears by Gloria Jahoda, the new immigrants would use God and greed to turn on the Indians, cordoning off land, pushing them further West and starving them of their foods. Yet Thanksgiving continues ironically, just without the Indians.  Families gather, eat copious amounts of food and hand over gifts.

Black Friday shows a return to that greed and similarly it’s fundamental to the nation and economy. The images on the news focus on the stampede at opening time, the wrestling for electronics, (you don’t see many fights in the book department) or the stubborn refusal for some to give up on a good claimed by someone else.  It’s seen as a bit of fun by many (we all like fun wrestling) but often tempers get frayed as people aggressively grab at what they think they need. Customers forget what Thanksgiving is about, being thankful for what you have, as quickly as they forgot the Indians.

Thanksgiving sounds pretty similar to Christmas doesn’t it? Well it is except for the traditions behind it have a European source. Similarly after Christmas come the sales where shops reveal how they make real money. Profit margins are reduced as prices are cut but shops make money on volume, selling far more than usual. This reveals how cheaper supermarkets survive and eventually do well. It explains the size of product bundles in Wal-Mart and that stores’ success. It also explains why Tesco is struggling and Aldi is prospering. It explains why Japanese firms previously succeeded by focusing on market size and stability over short-term raider shareholders. If you provide a decent product for a cheap price, people will buy. Once you start forgetting your basics and the dynamism needed to create, destruction is the end result.

This greed fermented by consumerism and materialism is manifest in our culture these days. This short-termism can be seen in the banking crisis, the vulture capital funds that seek to asset strip or create short term profitability, taking no responsibility for the lives of others. Selfishness is a human characteristic but community is a natural state. The problem is we often believe in our community over others. Selfishness leads to societies battling depression, abuse and greed. It strips us of our stability and humanity. Black Friday is a horrible example of community being hijacked by retailing, downgrading our humanity. Thanksgiving and Christmas might be flawed but they are looking in the right direction.

‘Funny’ Heroes

Heroic feats are no mean feats. I wrote recently on how knighthoods are given out too easily by the government, making populist decisions on a short-term basis. Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins are idolised far too quickly. If they were touted for promoting healthy lifestyles through cycling showing determination and success, I’d be happier with the awards. Winning the Tour De France in such a tainted sport and with a whole team working for you or Olympic gold medals in a variety of non-events is not enough. However they, at least, strove to achieve.

Political heroes must stand up to much higher levels of criticism and evaluation. They must face the media over their present and pasts and later face revisionist historical analysis in which they have no say. Churchill was a great British hero but also made tactical judgement calls that would be severely criticised now. Clinton’s sexual affairs overrode his legacy. Mandela was, somewhat legitimately, called a terrorist by the South African government of the time. We dismissed this at the time but now the state is happy to use the terrorist label for any violent opponent.

When you ask a question at work (and across the ME) to name a hero, the same names come up and they will surprise. I’ll give you the top 3 I heard.

saddam-hussein-fresco-at-basra-depicting-him-in-heroic-style1. Saddam Hussain is considered a hero and great leader in much of the Middle East. He was known as the Sword, heralded for holding together a country and fighting Iran. The evidence cited of his greatness is the present situation in Iraq. He built infrastructure and even sent a rocket into space. I heard congratulates for invading and defeating the great State of Kuwait in a matter of hours! Nasser was the Arab previous hero.

What seems to be ignored is the war in Iran was a disaster. He also lost it. He also sent rockets other places including Iran, Kuwait, Israel and the Kurdish area of his own country replete with poison gas while enriching himself and allowing his sons to kidnap and rape women. What is also not mentioned is the support for Saddam is mostly based on his Sunni religion. If he was Shia, he would be vilified. Just ask Assad in Syria. This grand divide is the fundamental in the region.

2. ‘I like Hitler because he killed a lot of Jews’ said a Middle East diplomat to me. He said it directly and with a slight smile. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard his Hitler’s name mentioned. We were talking about political heroes and what makes a good leader as part of the diplomacy course. Others  roll their eyes at these comments, but I am not sure if they disagree or are just aware of the consequences of such opinion. The only positive coming from that statement was the lack of Holocaust denial though David Irvine does get quoted sometimes.

The Israeli-Arab divide is another long running sore leading to suspicion, anger and Palestinian poverty, The Israel Government is doing everything to protect its state, constantly using the mantra of survival to maintain its destructive policies. The Arab states use the Palestinian disaster as a nationalist rallying call within their own state, a tactic to deflect attention away from the dsyfunctionality and illegitimacy of their own governments. Heroes are therefore defined by victimisaton rather than heroic actions.

3. The above leads onto the third category of heroes in the Middle East; national leaders. Idolatry is banished in Islam. Images of the prophets or God are absent from any mosque. The uproar over the Danish cartoons was as much about the image of the prophet as much as the satire. Yet through the Middle East, imagery of leaders and heroes is rife. Every building in Qatar has two pictures: of the former Emir Hamed and the present Emir, his son Tamin. They adorn office walls and whole buildings and are thanked on the news every night. Qatar doesn’t go as far as Kuwait and the UAE which run hourly adverts between programs highlighting the sincerity and benevolence of the leaders.

The cult of personality is not unique to the region. Thailand salutes the king before every movie with the national anthem. The Stans are run by various despots. The US salutes the flag regularly and salutes its heroes, including some eyebrow-raising ones. Even in the UK, a few decades ago it was common to see a picture of the Queen in a pub though more in affection rather than adulation.

This form of nationalism is of course mandatory in a lot of the world. The media in the ME is controlled, pulling inconvenient stories from foreign papers, blocking internet access and running sycophantic stories in the press. The Middle East doesn’t go as far as North Korea where people are forced to wear badges with the image of the leader, cry on command and prostrate themselves to his wishes. But nationalism and religious fervency are not so far apart. They lead to the same end; a desire to submit to a greater power and ironically Islam does mean submission.

While I am not arguing for greater openness in the Middle East, the lack of non-political heroes indicates either political strife hence a nationalistic form of education or a lack of development outside the traditions of war and religion. Many are new states. Stability and order prevail.