Buffy the Vampire Slayer

17 10 2008

image

Sander:

I really didn’t care much about Buffy at first. It was just another US teen show, I watched it when my nephews watched it. It was OK, I guess, I just saw some random episodes from the first and second season.

Then Estonian TV stopped showing the show for a quite a while – and as my nephew didn’t have a net connection at home back then, he asked me to download fourth and fifth season for him

I was in the university – 100 mbit/s connection – so that was not a biggie. Bittorrent didn’t exist in that dark age of the Internets, so I had to rely on eMule – and I got all kinds of crappy quality, including 64 MB episode packed with Real Video.

eMule being as slow then as it is now, it took quite a while to download all those episodes. One evening I didn’t have anything better to do, so I started watching them… and started with a random episode of fifth season. And I was shocked, the show was really quite good!

I didn’t do too much but watching Buffy for the rest of the week. Mostly season five, in random order – i.e. as they arrived. I decided to download rest of the show as well.

By then, the sixth season had started – and one of the first episodes I saw from it was “Once more with a feeling”. And that was it, I knew that I am sold to the series for good. How can you resist a singing demon?!

Now I am in the middle of watching the whole shebang for the third time. And it is still fresh and exciting to me – out of all the TV-series, I think only Babylon 5, my absolute favorite, can beat that.

When you start watching Buffy, just endure the first season. Yes, it has horrible praying mantis (horrible not in a good way!) and so forth… but just endure it. The Master as the nemesis is just really bad. Overcliche‘d, boring, dumb.

Second season gets better. For a first thing, Spike and Drusilla come to Sunnydale – and Angel can be endured much more easily when he is evil Angelus, not the boring Angelwimp.

Season three can be endured knowing that Angel will leave. I also like the mayor – Big Bad of the season. His humor, attention to small things… just gotta love it.

And of course, there is already lots of Spike in season three.

Fourth season is already pretty decent. A bit too many filler episodes (Beer Bad, one of the worst Buffy episodes!) – but then again, there is Hush, one of the best ones. Adam is extremely likable, even though his end comes a bit too easily. And I do like the last episode of the season, the dreams.

But BtVS peaks in seasons five and six – especially the latter.

Season five has Glory. First time I watched Buffy I didn’t like her. Dumb skanky blonde. But since then I’ve started to like her more – and at some point I realized that Clare Kramer does a brilliant job playing Glorificus. Now I enjoy most of the time she is on screen – and, of course, there is the memorable ending of the season.

Sixth season had Once More, With Feeling. Need I say any more? Oh yes, funny villains (I like Jonathan a lot), scary stuff, lots of feelings, lots of Spike. Good long complicated storylines, unexpected twists.

Seventh season was a bit of a let-down after the incredible sixth season. Not bad, just not as good. Buffy as a character gets a bit drawn out – I suspect Joss Whedon felt the same, that is why last season is as much about Spike as it is about Buffy.

Why do I like this show so much?

Storyline. It had continuous story arcs going not only whole season, but sometimes several seasons.

Good actors. Not all cast was good – some were outright mediocre – but there was Anthony Stewart Head as Rupert Giles. And naturally Spike (James Marsters). He literally makes the show – occasional comic relief, occasional action hero, occasional lover. Spike truly is the best thing about the show – and one of the best handled characters in TV, ever.

Out-of-the-box. Lesbians in mainstream TV. Insanity. Issues. Relationships. Weirdness. Feelings. Fights. It has it all.

By the way – have you ever noticed, in Buffy vampires bite only girls who are alone in dark alleyways. But all the vampires you see are tall athletic men who are trained in martial arts. What gives?!

Michelle:

I got in to watching Buffy with Sander — It’s one of his favorite shows.  I knew for a long time how much he liked it, because he talked about it often.  It rates right up there with Pratchett.  If you spend much time with him, you’ll learn right way — Pratchett & Buffy quotes as often as possible.

I started out not really caring for Buffy much.  The first season was.. hmm.. shall we just go with “not the greatest”.  The episodes seemed lame, and overly contrived.  And even more hokey than I thought a tv show could be, with the huge snake..thing, and the morph-to-human-from-Praying Mantis..thing.  I geared up for the remaining seasons by promising my self a prize of buttery popcorn, with the even better prize of getting to watch David Boreanaz play Angel (and even better, Angelus).

But with the addition of James Marsters as Spike, in the second season, Buffy started to grow on me.  His well written lines, delivered with just the right amount of sarcasm and terror, were perfectly suited to the show.  The insanity of Spike’s girlfriend, Drusilla made this even more palpable.  And, eventually, made up for the loss of Angel to the Buffy show.

I’m not sure exactly how to finish this bit, as we are still only in the 5th season of Buffy.  But I can say, with definity, that I have grown to really enjoy watching the episodes.  I’ve learned to take each one with a grain of salt, a splash of humor, a dash of believing unbelievability, and come away with 42 minutes of entertaining fun.

I look forward to finishing the series, and adding my final opinion to this post.





The Fun Of Cooking

7 09 2008

Michelle:

When my mother was around 9, her own mother died. Being the girl of the family, with her father and brother as the males (and it being 1957, to boot), she was left to the cooking and cleaning.  She learned to cook a few good dishes, and, when she had visits with her Grandmother (rarely, as they lived about 700 miles apart), she was taught a bit more. Instead of being happy about cooking, she learned to hate it.

So, when I was old enough to have an interest in cooking, she let me make cookies, cakes, pies, breads and such.  But she didn’t teach me how to cook meals.  She didn’t want me burdened with having to cook.  About the only thing I did learn, other than how to bake (because that was a fun thing to do, according to her), was to prep vegetables and make popcorn.

Lets just put it this way – I could peel a potato really well, prep vegetables so that they look amazing, and I was an expert in the art of popcorn making.  When I first moved to New York, not knowing how to cook anything, I lived on popcorn and Dr. Pepper for about a year.  I still love popcorn, and can’t live without my Dr. Pepper ;)

I remember very clearly, one of my roommates in tears over my preparation of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  I didn’t realize the water had to be boiling /before/ you put the macaroni in the water.  I ended up with a gluey mess that really wasn’t edible for most people, but being so hungry that I ate it anyway.  Anna, the roommate I mentioned above, taught me some of the basics – that you need to boil water before the macaroni is put in, that letting an egg sit in the pot full of warm water for about 10 minutes before you actually cook it, bringing the egg and the water to the same temperature, kept the egg from splitting and cracking when it was boiled.

Once I got married, I learned a whole new lesson – I knew next to nothing about cooking and my husband expected actual meals, as if by saying “I do” at the alter, it immediately made me a cook.  My whole experience of cooking up until then consisted of using a can opener to “make soup”, pre-packaged “add milk & butter, mix, heat  and stir” meals.  I didn’t know the difference between elbow, lasagna, or ziti pasta.  I didn’t realize that sausage for dinner was not the same thing as breakfast sausage.  And the only way I knew to cook chicken was to bake it with a can of some condensed cream soup.

So I got out the cook books I had received as gifts for my wedding – The Joy Of Cooking (1975 version of the book), and Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook.  I began reading The Joy Of Cooking and, though I really wasn’t interested in some of it (Sweetbreads, for example), it did teach me a lot.  I followed recipes literally and very exactly, with no deviation whatsoever.  I would pick up a cooking magazine, or a new cookbook every once in a while, and make a new recipe, or ask people for theirs.

Once I got familiar with cooking, I was still afraid of it.  It literally made me nervous.  I was always afraid what I cooked would come out terrible and I was unsure of techniques that the cookbooks talked about.  I didn’t understand even the simplest things – braising vs broiling, boiling vs simmering, saute vs frying.

I started to watch cooking shows, most notably, Emeril.  Though I really didn’t care for how he presented his show, I learned so much from him.  Namely.. how *not* to be afraid of cooking.  He made food seem fun.  He, it seemed, would just throw ideas together, and come up with good food.

But by far, the person who taught me to lose my fear of cooking forever was Alton Brown.  I’m one of those people who *need* to know What, Where, When, How and Why for everything, and Alton Brown, on his show “Good Eats” teaches just that.  The show can be silly, is always quirky, but is always full of useful knowledge about the what, where, when, how and why.  I’ve watched him since the very first episode 12 years ago, and always have fun learning new things.  Or just watching his interaction with “Thing” ;)

About the same time I discovered Alton Brown, I also discovered a magazine.  I was always buying cooking magazines, which were filled with hundreds of recipes.  There was usually some theme to the recipes, but these magazines always made me feel as if I was missing something.  One afternoon, I picked up Cooks Illustrated, took it home, and read it cover to cover.  The magazine contains no advertising at all, and usually contains between 10 and 15 recipes.  Not a lot at all.  But what the magazine lacks in quantity of recipes is by far made up for with the quality of the recipes themselves.  A typical recipe is given after a lengthy discussion about how the recipe goes together, how the author of the article made the recipe, what changes were made to it, and why.  And How.

So, between Alton and CI,  I learned cooking terminology, about pots and pans, knives and whisks; how to mix spices and herbs to create amazing flavor, why flavors work, and what flavors don’t, but most importantly I lost my fear of cooking and learned to love it.  And to love to experiment.  I would challenge myself to create new recipes, trying new things, with old things, and seeing what worked, and what didn’t.  I really had a lot of fun, and still do.

I’ve found out, over the years, that cooking is one of the things that makes me who I am.  I love to cook.  I’ve cooked for crowds of 75+, I’ve cooked 7 course fine dining type of meals; I can make fun and interesting amuse bouche; unusual appetizers that people actually beg for more.  But for the most part, I’ve learned to love simple foods, good flavors, create interesting ideas, and I’m never afraid to try something new.

Mexican food has always been a favorite of mine, and I enjoy making that type of food a lot, but I’ve learned to cook everything from Cuban, Brazilian,  Asian — Chinese, Korean, Thai, to Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and of course, a lot of regional American.

I’ve taken a couple of cooking classes, too.  Intro to Basic Cooking — where I learned why Kosher Salt is so much better to cook with, in certain dishes, and how to slice a tomato, and Knife Skills, where learned that a sharp knife won’t cut me and leave a bloody trail across the kitchen.  And Asian Fusion class — which wasn’t really my cup of tea, since the “Fusion” was French, and I’m pretty much a Non-French Food kinda person.

Since my divorce, I’ve cooked less — less people to cook for, but when I do cook, I have a blast doing it.  I have been teaching my son to cook over the last 2 or three years, and last year, I was persuaded by Sander to create a blog for my recipes.  I really enjoy sharing what I have learned, and the recipes I’ve created, or just recipes that I love there.

Madam Benoit says exactly how I feel about cooking:

“I feel a recipe is only a theme, which an intelligent cook can play each time with a variation.”

I guess, in conclusion, cooking, for me, is just a fun expression of myself, in the same way art is.   It can be masterful, or just ordinary, but it is always interesting.

Sander:

image I actually remember the first time I cooked. I must have been about three or four years old – and had played in the kitchen while mother was cooking. The details are a bit vague, but I think I insisted on “helping” and mother gave me little pot where I could mix flour and water – which she then put to the oven with her cake. Thankfully, I don’t remember how my “cake” tasted…

At some point I got a childrens cookbook, I think I might have been about eight or nine). Remember, this was before the age of overprotection, so the cookbook still had things like making hot porridges (including boiling milk), cutting vegetables and so forth. I think I tried most of those recipes – my both parents worked and sisters were older then I, so I got home first and when I wanted something hot to eat, I had to make it myself.

Around twelve or so I started making cakes and other dishes – at first together with mother, then on my own. She must have been rather annoyed about the occasional unwashed cookware and table dripping with paste… not to mention, my habit of trying “new things” and changing recipes whimsically.

I guess at that time I also picked up the basics of actual cooking (not that I know overly much about them even now) and developed “my taste”. Few years after that I experimented quite a lot with different spices, including growing them in our country house garden.

And that taught me two things. 1. There is nothing better food-wise then oven roasted pork. 2. Simple is good.

image Oven roasted pork is still my very favorite food. And after trying it with various spices and ways, I figured out that you really cannot improve what is perfect already. So now I cook it with just some onion, pepper and salt. I like pork roast drier than most people, so the pan sauce is absorbed by the meat, instead of it just laying on top.

Oh, that wonderful pan sauce… onion, carrot, turnip and potatoes have added to the wonderful taste of the pork. Cut the pork open, smash the potatoes and pour that sauce on them. A loaf of bread and some hot milk… pure heaven on Earth.

I actually toyed with an idea of going to a culinary school after the high school and becoming an actual cook. Hovever, as I was faaaar more into biology, that is where I went.

I still like to cook, very much so. But I’ve learned that mostly I like simple things – I do turkey with simplest possible filling, my cakes tend to be simple (such as jelly rolls), my meat dishes simple and tasty. My tastes are very plain, give me a good chunk of meat and color me happy!

But in discussions with Michelle I found that I know very little about all the little tricks and tips of the trade. That happens when you’re self-taught and don’t like cooking books too much as well. Did you know how many different types of beans there are? I thought there were two, fava and kidney beans…

As she has an inquisitive mind, she knows a whole lot about why something is done in the way it is, not just “it is always done like that”. I’ve learned whole lot more about cooking from her – and will probably do so for a very very long time. At least I was able to teach her how to cook buckwheat porridge and semolina pudding – both delicious and simple dishes. First one is even the most read post in her food blog. Go me!





On public transportation

30 08 2008

Sander:Streetcar, Boston 1909

As a first thing, I must admit I own a car – and therefore use public transport rarely, usually when going to city center, so I don’t have to worry about the parking.

However, I will probably start going to work with streetcar in the winter. I live about four minutes car drive from my workplace – or less then ten minutes with a streetcar. And there is really no point to heat up the car for a four-minute ride to work, when I can take two-minute walk to streetcar stop and six or eight minutes ride to work – where the stop is about 25 meters from the entry.

It is hard to say, how good is the public transport in Estonia. Compared to Sweden, Finland or Norway, it is not good. On the other hand, it is better then in USA, which has always bet mostly on cars.

Tallinn and other bigger cities have a reasonably good public transport. As in all over Europe, public transportation is heavily subsidized.

Intercity rail transport was in a pretty bad condition when we got the railroads back from Soviet Union – where government-owned railroad company was “nation within nation”. Tracks in bad repair, old uncomfortable trains and stations that hadn’t seen repairs for decades.

Things did not improve quickly. Government didn’t have money for repairs – so they decided to privatize the railroads, a process that took several years to complete. Highest/preferred bidder for Eesti Raudtee was US holding company Railroad Development Corporation. They got the railroad in 2001 and were supposed to invest very heavily – but as it came out, they mostly pumped the money out (and there were rumors about money laundering). So, government bought railroad back from them – and since Estonia had better times economically, railroads have been improving. But, again, we are very far from German or Japanese superfast trains – hopefully we will have them running on at least couple of main routes eventually.

Locally on the countryside, big ugly Soviet-built buses have been replaced with smaller, more economically feasible small buses and the frequency of buses has been improving a lot in recent years.

The popularity of mass transportation had surprisingly little increase during the recent oil price peak. Seems that most of Estonians prefer the privacy and comfort of their own cars, no matter what the cost. Of course, if you have four in the car, it is actually cheaper then trains or buses.

Unfortunately, I also don’t see a big jump in popularity of public transport happening in near future. Probably there will be a slow increase, as the mass transport will continue improving – and municipal authorities continue creating special tracks for buses and streetcars. We’ll see… less cars in would be really nice.

Michelle:

Well.. as he did, I’ll admit that I own and drive a car.  However, I’m an American – we must have our cars ;)

Seriously though…. What stops me from making public transportation?  Well, it’s a 60 mile round trip to work, for starters.  Taking a bus is roughly 2.5 hours, each way.  Biking is not an option, nor is commuting with others, as the area I am traveling into is where people are traveling out of.

I would love to take the train.. but I’m on the MTA Hudson River line, and my job is on the MTA Harlem line — and no way to switch over without going into New York City, to 125th Street, or Grand Central Station, and switching trains, which would not save time, and not save any money, and in point of fact, cost me more money.

In the New York Metro area public transportation is available via bus, train or subway, depending upon where you live.  New York metro area (including the 5 boroughs, Suffolk, Rockland & Westchester Counties, parts of New Jersey, and Connecticut) all share rail lines, and busing systems.

54.24% of the over 3.5 million workers in New York City, (Not including the metro area) utilize pubic transportation.  I’m positive that a great many — I’d estimate at least an additional 35% walk to work, with the remaining cabbing or driving.

The problem in the metro area, unless you live in New York City, (which I do not), is timing.  It can literally take 2+ hours on a bus to go 35 miles, with so many stops, and changes along the route.  It only pays to use mass transit when going into or out of the city, or perhaps going up the line on the Metro North train system.

The top cites in the US that use a transit system are

  • New York City – 54.24% — 7.7 Million people ride the subway system daily (this number includes commuters)
  • Washington, DC – 38.97% – 950,000 people ride the subway system daily
  • Boston – 31.6% — 493,000 ride the ‘T’
  • San Francisco – 30.29% — 366,000 use BART
  • Philadelphia – 26.43% — 308,000 use SEPTA
  • Chicago – 25.38% – 595,000 people ride the ‘L’
  • Baltimore – 19.55%  — 54,000 people rude the subway system daily
  • Seattle – 17.79% — 39,000 people use pt daily

After these cities, the numbers fall drastically, from 10.97% down to less than 1%. There are light rail systems that are increasing – especially over the last few months with the high rise in fuel prices. There are, approximately, 30 commuter rail lines in use now, with an estimated 40 in the early stages of development, in planning, or almost ready to connect to the main lines.

There are several issues when it comes to the usage of PT in the US:

  1. We are a car nation.  It’s pretty much as simple as that.  People in the U.S. generally see public transportation as something for the poor, or the urbanites, not for themselves.
  2. Population density.  Public Transportation works in urban areas, and can be a fantastic.  But it hasn’t worked in small rural areas, and even in urban areas, it isn’t always effective.
  3. Cost – It can cost millions and, in larger areas, into the billions to start a public transportation system.

There are other options — including such services as van-pool, car-pool-share, as well as buses that will (home to destination, and back), pick up the elderly, infirm or disabled and take them around to various places.  My mother works for one of these companies —  State mandated and funded, and county operated, the facility she works at does just what I said.  In a small, rural town in western Nebraska, with a population of about 12,000, with a couple of mini-vans, and a wheelchair lift van, they pick up and deliver people to the doctor, the market, the hairdresser, etc.  Fee is small – less than $2.00 per trip.  But there is a caveat — you must be over a certain age, and/or disabled (and on disability).  They won’t pick up just anyone.

But what if they did?  What if they took their mini-vans, and did scheduled stops at certain times of the day.  The town is small enough that creating a route would not be that difficult.  The fee could remain small, with the advantages being great.  Environmentally, it would cut down on emissions & fossil fuel usage — why go to the mall, in a car by yourself, when you can step out your door, walk a block, catch the mini-van at 10:00am to the Mall, which will then bring you back at 12:00?

There is, of course, for long distance trips, Amtrak Train, and Greyhound Bus — but again, Amtrak can cost more than a plane ticket, takes too much time, and the cars are filthy.  Taking a Greyhound Bus cross country can take 2-6 days.

I really wish that another solution could be thought up…something to make it easier for everyone in the US. to use public transit, or mass transit.  More rail lines, connecting cities together — Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, or to Baltimore.  New York City to Boston, or Baltimore, or Washington DC.  I’d love to see commuter lines begin to criss-cross the US — and be able to jump on a train, go to Washington DC for the day, and be able to come back — and not cost me an arm and a leg for fuel for my car, or even higher fee for Amtrak.

In the area I live in — Westchester County, New York (Just north of New York City) — there is talk  of creating more commuter lines, to cross the Hudson River, and to cross the Long Island Sound.  I’ve been here 20 years, and have been hearing the same thing over and over — it’s in discussions.  We do have a good busing system (see above for how long it takes to ride to work, though), and we have Metro-North Trains (MTA), three lines which go from Grand Central Station in New York City, to points north and north-east.  They just never connect together, making it impossible to change lines.

My grandfather worked for Union Pacific from the end of WWII, until he passed away.  He worked originally on passenger trains that crisscrossed the US, and of course, through Nebraska.  In May, 1971, I was one of the last passengers ever to ride on the Overland Route.  I really do not remember it all that well, except I got to “drive” the train for a while.  I recall, though, very clearly, hearing fond stories my mother told of traveling on that train to see her grandparents, and how sad she was that it no longer existed.

I would have loved to travel on those trains as a kid.  How easy it would have been to go see family on the other side of the state.  And how easy it would have helped to calm that that craving, that need, I had (and still have), to see other places, experience new things, and still be able to get on a train anywhere, and come back home.

I’ve thought a lot about the possibility of the coming recession we will end up being in.  We’ll need to build the economy, and create and use commodities.  Maybe one solution might be to get an Interstate Commuter Rail system designed and built.  There are empty rail lines all across the country that could be fixed and utilized.

Whatever the solution is, or will be, I hope it will happen soon.  The US is growing by leaps and bounds, with the projected population of the US reaching 450 million by 2050 — I really don’t think we can afford not to wait on this.  The sooner we begin to build, the better.





Georgia on my mind…

21 08 2008

Michelle:

With the eyes of the world on the Beijing Olympics, Russia and Georgia clashed over the South Ossetia region.  You’ve read it all — Russia claiming 1,600 dead, tanks, armored vehicles and troops entered South Ossetia with the Russian Navy at the helm, and the Russian Air Force bombing, to “protect and defend” South Ossetia from Georgia.

The history of the region is pretty well laid out.  Georgia, as many other countries have been, was first “absorbed” by the Russians in the 19th Century, and then, in 1922, became part of Soviet Russia.  The Soviet “absorption” ended in 1991, and, with some unrest, some conflict, and the typical economic problems that occurred with break off countries, Georgia became it’s own nation.  It has not been a smooth road – civil unrest, and conflicts arising as both South Ossetia and Abkhazia resolved to be independent and secede from Georgia.

The conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia has been going on since 1992.  Multiple cease-fires and violent conflicts have continued, on and off since then, with the latest cease-fire ending, and Georgia entering the South Ossetia region.

On August 7, 2008, Georgian forces and separatists in South Ossetia agree to observe a ceasefire and hold Russian-mediated talks to end their long-simmering conflict. Hours later, Georgian forces launch a surprise attack, sending a large force against the breakaway province and reaching the capital Tskhinvali. (See the timeline, from BBC)

Russia, being the regions “mediator” in this conflict, promptly pours it’s troops and armored division into South Ossetia and engages Georgian forces in  Tskhinvali.  Putin was quoted saying [sic: the Russian Government] “condemns the aggressive actions by Georgian troops in South Ossetia” and that Russia would be compelled to retaliate.  And retaliate they did — with troops, armor, naval ships and air force.

To be totally honest, my first thoughts when this conflict first came to light on the 8th, was 1), “Perfect timing, while the worlds attention is on the Olympics”, and 2), “Oh for-gods-sake I hope the US doesn’t think it needs to get involved and that Russia backs off.”  Wishful thinking on my part? But rather alarmed, too, for fear that this will escalate and get out of hand. But I think I’m more frightened because of the future implications of Russia’s current action.  In the most simplistic terms, if Russia can do this with South Ossetia and Georgia, what is to keep them from one day doing the same thing to Estonia? Latvia? Belarus? Moldova? Lithuania? or any of the other post-Soviet countries?  Who is to say, that if Russia does not like how Estonia or Ukraine treats its Russians, that Russia won’t do the same thing, and again, absorb independent countries into a new Soviet regime?

If, by any chance, you think me over worried, just look at this:

(Monday, August 18, 2008)FOX News: Russia has placed short range SS-21 missiles in South Ossetia, that could pose a threat to most major Georgian cities,” including the capital, Tbilisi, a U.S.Defense official confirmed to FOX News on Monday. (Link)

And

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday that Russia is playing a “very dangerous game” with the U.S. and its allies and warned that NATO would not allow Moscow to win in Georgia, destabilize Europe or draw a new Iron Curtain through it.

On her way to an emergency NATO foreign ministers meeting on the crisis, Rice said the alliance would punish Russia for its invasion of the Georgia and deny its ambitions by rebuilding and fully backing Georgia and other Eastern European democracies.

“We have to deny Russian strategic objectives, which are clearly to undermine Georgia’s democracy, to use its military capability to damage and in some cases destroy Georgian infrastructure and to try and weaken the Georgian state,” she said.

“We are determined to deny them their strategic objective,” Rice told reporters aboard her plane, adding that any attempt to recreate the Cold War by drawing a “new line” through Europe and intimidating former Soviet republics and ex-satellite states into submission would fail.

“We are not going to allow Russia to draw a new line at those states that are not yet integrated into the trans-Atlantic structures,” she said, referring to Georgia and Ukraine, which have not yet joined NATO or the European Union but would like to. (Link)

And

Times Online: President Medvedev of Russia yesterday promised a “shattering blow” against any foreign power that moved against Russian citizens. (Link)

The questions abound —

  • Why is Russia purporting to care about this region?
  • WTF Is Russia doing by placing missiles in South Ossetia?
  • Is it the Kosovo Factor? (Kosovo declared independence in February, 2008, and is now recognized as an independent nation by many countries in the west.)
  • Is it the pipeline?
  • Is it just power, for the sake of it?
  • Is it in retaliation for Poland wanting the shield?
  • Is it because Georgia is not a willing ally and therefore, must pay the price for Pro-Western ambition?
  • Why does South Ossetia want sovereignty?  Do they not understand that, by doing so, they undermine themselves, the region, and any type of livable accord with it’s neighboring county, and that by declaring itself part of Georgia, it eliminates Putins’ puppet-mastery and self (country?) aggrandizing need for control?
  • Did South Ossetia provoke Georgia, to draw in Russia?
  • Why is Georgia armed and readily using force on South Ossetia?
  • Did Georgia provoke Russia, thinking that they would have some sort of international military support?
  • Why did they back out of the mediation?
  • Further, why is Georgia wearing U.S. Military uniforms? Is the U.S. training Georgia for conflict, and if so, to what end, and purpose?

I have too many questions, and not enough answers. So, I’m not sure I can really provide any opinion here. Maybe I’m just over war’ed out, as are many Americans – almost to a point of complete apathy.

I look at this conflict with detached and abject eyes:  Russia, the aggressor of Georgia; Georgia the aggressor of South Ossetia; South Ossetia young, corrupt (as all young want-to-be’s are), and wanting to be a nation , (which in my opinion is incredibly idealistic), but without the knowledge or understanding of the international implications of it’s actions.

  • I can somewhat understand that Russia, playing it’s Soviet-era games as it always has, will back the South Ossetia citizenry, because it is in Russia’s best interest to do so.  But to what end?  What are the real reasons?
  • I can fully understand Georgia’s point of view — if the areas, including both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, become compliant and join with Georgia, NATO and the EU are attainable.
  • I can fully understand South Ossetia’s point of view — they wish to be a sovereign nation in their own right. What people, under the circumstances, would not want that?

What I would like to see happen is for Russia to back out of the region, Georgia to back out of the conflict, and South Ossetia to get it’s collective head out of it’s ass, and hold on to the one good thing they will have if they do so — Georgia as a whole nation, with NATO allies, the backing of the EU and an end to senseless conflict in such a precarious region of the world.

However, with Medvedev being used as the puppet of Putin, (and therefore Medvedev has no real say), and the history of Russia, I can see this conflict ongoing and potentially unstoppable.  Putin has been quoted, stating that he claims to want a “fair and democratic world order that would ensure security and prosperity not only for a select few, but for all.”  I don’t know about you, but I’ve never really thought of Putin as a “fair and democratic” type of person.  Even with the pullout of forces that has supposedly begun, unless all parties can come to a bargaining table, with actual chips to move around, I foresee this ending badly, with many lives lost, and a world at even more odds with itself.

Sander:

There is nothing clear or simple about the five-day war. We have very little information about what actually happened there. Massive propaganda war by Russia, which they thankfully lost, muddled things further (as a side comment, does Kremlin still think that anyone trusts its publications, be they openly Kremlin mouthpieces like regnum.ru or Pravda – or seemingly oh-so-liberal-and-cool sites such as eXile.ru. There is a reason why Russia is 144th out of 169 countries in 2007 Press Freedom Index – and it ain’t their love for free media).

One thing seems to be certain – after months of open provocations (which included bombing Georgian villages by “Ossetian separatists” (read: Russian planning, financing and weapons)) Georgia finally flipped and moved military to South Ossetia. Stories about bombing civilians and genocide don’t seem to have any truth to them – or does anyone really believe that Georgians made a video how they launched rockets to kill civilians, and then promptly released that video to Russian media for propaganda purposes? Not to mention, while at first Russian officials reported 2000 victims and reduced the number to 1600 soon, Tskhinvali central hospital naively reported only 44 deaths. Also, Russian and Ossetian forces were caught presenting their KIA soldiers as civilian casualties, going so far as to dress their killed to civilian clothes and “planting” them to residential buildings. If there was bombing of civilians, I fear it was in the same style like shelling of Mainila.

It is easy to see in hindsight, but Georgian president Saakashvili did not realize two things when he ordered troops to move into separatist South Ossetia – firstly, that Russia had been waiting for that and were instantly ready to move in their “peacekeeping” forces – and secondly, that Georgia’s western allies were not ready to be involved to a military conflict.

There are many reasons why Russia wanted to have that conflict. Not in any particular order:

  • Saakashvili and his Western orientation

Russia still has its imperial ambitions, not realizing that time of empires ended on 19th century. Any country that Russia has ever owned, should either be a part of Russia or under Russian “sphere of influence”. Will of the people living in that area be damned, now you will be governed from Moscow.

But Georgians chose Saakasvili and his Western views – freely, there was no massive CIA-financed campaign or whatever other bullshit Russian publications have spewed out. And Georgia was doing massive steps forward, both economically and away from Russia. And this was something that was displeasing Kremlin to no end – an example that a country in Caucasus can exist just fine without Russian support or influence. How can that be?!

Russia has broken its teeth on Caucasus for close to 300 years, sometimes being able to occupy the countries using age-old divide-and-conquer tactics, only to be pushed out soon again.

Thankfully it seems Russia failed to install new president and a puppet government (a la Chechnya) to Georgia. However, to some extent they’ve destroyed the economy of Georgia, by destroying ports, bridges and railroads.

  • Oil and gas: Russian economy depends on it

While the income and life standards in bigger cities has become considerably higher, most of Russia lives actually worse then a decade ago. That is because there is no real economy; Russia’s economy is solely based on exporting crude oil and gas. Corruption is running rampant – it is actually worse then before Putin came to power.

Ant the benefits of attacking Georgia would be two-fold in this perspective – firstly, oil prices have been dropping, something very clearly not in interest of Russia – and secondly, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Creating destabilization and fear in the area would rise the crude oil price and force Europe to buy oil from Russia.

In that, Russia had some initial success – prices of oil stopped getting lower and even rose a bit. But after BT confirmed that pipeline was still functional, oil price continued to ease.

Also, economists and analysts know Russia needs to sell the oil. If Europe doesn’t buy Russian oil, then Russia needs to find a new buyer immediately, be it China, India or Japan. Russia simply needs those oil dollars or it would collapse economically.

  • Internal affairs

Find an enemy and blame everything on them – Hitler blamed Jews, Stalin kulaks and so forth. Another old way to consolidate people behind the leaders.

Russia has been cycling enemies every six months – USA, Estonia, UK, Latvia, Georgia, Poland, USA, Estonia, UK … I guess the cycling is needed because otherwise Russian commoners might look at the map and realize – “hey, Latvia is tiny… how can they occupy and enslave us like Our Father Putin said… hmm, something doesn’t make sense here”.

Like it has always been known, there is nothing better to boost the moral and support to leaders then a short and victorious war. And it worked – Russians have no access to free media or that information is discredited (“Known CIA propaganda sites BBC, CNN and Economist”, “Cold War era warhorses Conquest and Edward Lucas”, …). So they believe that Georgia is aggressor and Mother Russia is saving the day by taking “peacekeepers” against evil joint Georgia-CIA forces.

Popularity of Medvedev has risen in Russia – Putin’s hasn’t, as it was already at 110%. And no one pays attention to food prices – which have risen more then 20% in six months and will continue to rise.

Conclusions: where shall we go from here?

Georgia will probably have to say goodbye to South Ossetia. It won’t be incorporated into Russian Federation – instead it will get UN/EU peacekeepers, and sort of dangle as a part of Georgia for decades. Best solution – and one that would save the face of Russia quite a bit – would be to create a country of Ossetia. Georgia will give up South Ossetia, Russia will give up North Ossetia – and everybody will be happy.

Sadly, that won’t happen. Russia will never give up any part of its lands, no matter how low their explanations for occupying those areas get. Also, that would stabilize Caucasus a lot – not in the interest of Russia at all – and create a dangerous precedent. Huge chunks of Russian Federation would love to get away from it – and that is something Kremlin cannot allow.

Funnily, in online websites, comments by Russians often bring up the South Ossetian 2006. independence referendum – in which 99% of voters supported independence. However, they “forget” that ethnic Georgians in Ossetia were not given the right to vote. And furthermore, they always get strangely quiet when asked when similar referendum will be held in Chechnya.

Of course, Chechnyan independence referendum would probably show 99.99% wish to remain a part of Russia, no matter that Chechnens have struggled against Russian rule for centuries. After all, Chechnya had similar support to Medvedev in presidential elections. At least they got their math right, not like few Siberian areas that had more then 100% support for pro-Putin parties in parliament elections…

Russians will be forced to pull our their troops from Georgia – and eventually from South Ossetia as well, when UN takes their peacekeepers there. Economy of Georgia will recover pretty fast, thanks to foreign aid, South Ossetia will live on charity for a decade. Georgia and Ukraine are on a fasttrack to full NATO membership, other Caucasus coutries will start to think about NATO as well.

Hopefully this whole incident has opened the eyes of Western countries – on what kind of country Russia has become. Especially Germany, who has lately dropped pants and bent over whenever Russia has looked their way.

Oil prices will continue to drop and stabilize soon – thanks to end of Olympic games and strengthening dollar. The trend will continue in the winter, as US has apparently always enjoyed a brief burst of economical growth after the presidential elections, when everybody are hopeful that things will change.

Oh, an interesting tidbit – the constitution of Russian Federation requires the permission of Russian Congress (Duma) to use armed forces outside of Russian borders. This permission has not been given. Does this mean Georgia is considered to be within Russian borders? Or small details like the constitution and such simply just don’t bother Putin.

If we’re lucky, next Olympic games won’t be held in Russia and Russia will be kicked out of G8. Russia will go into more and more international isolation – until they are forced to become a normal, democratic country, who isn’t a feared and hated bully in the region. Instead they are trusted and honored economic and cultural partner.

Yes, yes, I know it won’t happen, but one can dream of a better future, cannot I?





Beer or Wine

17 08 2008

His Opinion51tzejuCbTL__SS500_1

Beer… beer… BEER… Doesn’t even the sound of that word make you swallow thirstily? On the other hand, “wine”… just associates with “wino” and “vine” – and that’s it.

One is mellow golden brown and bubbly, the other looks like a wino took a leak… smells and tastes that way, too. Is there even a competition? (In case of red wine, make it a wino with a kidney problem).

To be honest, I am not totally against wines. There are some wines that I like, mostly semi-sweet muscat wines – you know, the ones that sommeliers hate. Because they are not real wines – made from sour grapes that have been crushed with bare feet, then kept in a barrel until it has gone stale – no, they are wines that actually taste good, not like someone crushed chalk into vinegar and bottled the result. Oh, and I do think that a big portion of a taste of the wine comes from toe fungus…

And yet, even two or three glasses of it give me a slight heartburn.

That is not the case with beer. No heartburn there, no matter if I have one bottle or six.

Of course, you have to choose your beers. Most major US beers are still the same as in that Monty Python joke: 

– Why is American beer like making love in a boat?

– Because it is fucking close to water!

There are some good US beers… or so I’ve heard. Corona from Mexico is worth checking out, Heineken and other German and North-European beers are usually at least drinkable.

For the BEER!

Her Opinion

Wine – the fermented juice of grapes, made in many varieties, such as red, white, sweet, dry, still, and sparkling, for use as a something that invigorates, cheers, or intoxicates; happy happy drink; classy; freaking yummyness.

Beer – Unpalatable fermented grainy liquid that does not taste very good, does not invigorate, cheer – just makes me have to pee incessantly; tastes like unbaked bread with too much yeast.

In case you wondered who was the “Beer” and who was the “Wine”, I’m Wine. He’s Beer.  And you’ll soon see why ;)

I will admit to drinking beer on occasion – when there isn’t any wine around, (and then only under duress), but when the choice is to be had, I’ll take wine anytime.

I  prefer the light, semi-sweet taste of a half-dry Riesling – full of delicate fruity flavors.  Or a robust Shiraz – amazingly delicious.  A bottle of wine has a history to it.  Every season produces a slightly different wine.  The weather, moisture, the barrels, the wine producer, the cork, the bottle type – all of these must be perfect in order to create a bottle of wine.  Wine making is part art, part talent, part luck, and all about passion. 

Learning about wine, and all that goes with it is something people grow into.  They become interested in wine, learn how to drink it, why you have to let a red wine breath, and why you should not over-chill a Pinot Grigio.  It’s a grown up thing to do.  Unlike beer, which is basically the first thing you get drunk on when you are 15. 

Like I said above, it tastes like unbaked bread that has gone bad.  Plus, I’m in the U.S. – we have crappy beer.  Have you ever actually tasted Budweiser?  Or <gag> Coors?  There isn’t much out there that can taste worse than Budweiser – even those overly priced energy drinks are better.  The cheapest wine has better flavor.

Typical Beer Drinker:

I’ll stick to wine, thank you very much.