Archive for April, 2009

Entry for April 30, 2009

April 30, 2009

A POUCH

In the early 1990s the Peace Corps started coming to Ukraine. Our town was visited by a group of farmers from the state of Kansas whose job was to give some advice on how to organize agricultural business in the steppe area. The Foreign Languages Department had to supply the visitors with interpreters, and I – as the Dean of the Department – used this opportunity to invite the Americans to our school. It would be instructive for the students, I thought, to listen to ordinary people who probably were not professionally trained to speak. Besides the language aspect, it would also be good to hear about the Americans’ daily life, their problems, their preferences, etc, etc.

The talk turned out to be interesting. Some two hundred students in a spacious lecture room conversed with the Americans freely. The representatives of the most powerful nation in the world were quite approachable and unassuming guys. It looked like agriculturalists in America were also dependent on the weather for their crops – just as peasants in Ukraine. Only in the U.S.A. they were more insured against possible whims of the weather than our farmers. One of the guests complained that none of his three sons remained on the farm after high school – the farmer’s work is not prestigious in America. His colleagues were nodding their consent.

When the talk was over I took the visitors to the Dean’s Office. After half an hour of our drinking coffee one of the Americans (the one whose sons had chosen roads in life other than agriculture) remembered that he had left his waist pouch with all the documents and credit cards down in the hall. I assured him that everything would be ok and asked him to follow me down to the same hall. I must confess I was not sure at all. There had been a few cases in my career as a dean when I had to investigate thefts among students: small sums of cash or articles of clothes were stolen at the hall of residence, from students’ lockers in the gym, etc.

I came to the hall and opened the door. The hall was empty. The pouch… WAS ON THE DESK!!! It was at the very edge of the desk– right at the chair in which the owner of the pouch had been sitting during the meeting.

I saw that the American was really happy. I kept a straight face. “You are in Ukraine, you know”, I said.

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Entry for April 29, 2009

April 29, 2009

The following info in Russian written by an anonymous author might have been hopping through many a site before it was emailed to me by my son. I liked this sarcastic piece and decided to translate it into English

CREDIT CRUNCH FOR DUMMIES

As a moonshiner, Old Klava is well known in our village. The moonshine she brews is as clean as a whistle.

Once Old Klava made up her mind to expand her business and to drive her long-standing enemy Old Masha out of the market. With this end in view Old Klava started selling the moonshine to its most loyal customers – the unemployed drunks – “on tick”, letting them pay for it later. The sales volumes sky-rocketed. Alkies from the whole neighbourhood rushed to Old Klava. She even put up prices for her brew. The drunks did not object: the payment could be effected later.

Naturally, Old Klava was not altogether dumb – ticking the moonshine away she demanded IOUs with the detailed info about the client: first and last name, passport number, payment date etc. A kind of mini-contract, you know.

As it happened, at that time Old Klava’s nephew was working in a bank. No sooner had he seen the pile of his aunt’s futures than he procured a credit for her – against those notes. Old Klava bought some more sugar as well as a coiled pipe for her hooch still. The pipe was new and nickel-plated.

The bank didn’t particularly hesitate giving the credit: it was well secured with the promissory notes. Should Old Klava fail to pay, the money will be collected from the drunks.

All of a sudden a brilliant idea struck somebody in the bank: what if they sort out the IOUs according to expiry dates and then issue bonds backed by these IOUs and off-load them onto foreigners. Aren’t we smart boys!

So said so done. The bank issued alko-bonds, blue-nose-bonds and no-home-bonds on the security of the notes and raised the foreign capital. The foreigners were pleased as pleased could be and started selling the bonds to one another. The prices were going upwards. Nobody understood much about it except that when the bank was giving a guarantee and the prices were growing, the game was worth the candle.

The jam in the doughnut was spoilt by Petrovich at the Department of Economics (later he was fired from the bank). I do not know what’s got into him, but he started raising a stink saying that the money should be collected from the drunks because the bonds were to be extinguished in a short while.

Needless to say the drunks had no money and Old Klava declared herself bankrupt. Most of all she was sorry she had to give away the coiled pipe (which was nickel-plated) for a mere nothing.

Even the shop that used to sell sugar to Old Klava went belly up due to the low sales

The stock prices for the no-home-bonds and blue-nose-bonds fell by 95%. The alko-bonds showed up a little better — falling only by 80%.

The village council had to urgently save the bank. As it goes in such cases, the bank was being saved at the expense of nondrinkers.

Entry for April 28, 2009

April 28, 2009

NEITHER A BORROWER NOR A LENDER BE

Many businesses in Ukraine are going bankrupt and the debt-collection market is burgeoning. Announcements about collection services may be seen everywhere – from the metro to lamp-posts in the streets. Since Ukraine has no special law that regulates the activities of collection agencies, the collectors are often hefty guys who chase debtors day and night – wherever the debtors may be. If you have an unpaid credit with a bank and receive a call at midnight and nobody at the other end of the phone answers your repeated “hello” but only breathes into the phone, you may be sure it is a collector.

When our kids were small, my wife decided to get them insured. I don’t remember how big were the monthly payments she had to make, but it was a comparatively sizable amount. I was against the undertaking – telling my wife that though the insurance company promised to return the whole amount by the time the children came of age, the amount to be returned would definitely be dwindled by inflation, and the money that was being paid at that moment was more valuable than it probably would be some fifteen years later. Things turned the way I predicted. The USSR collapsed and the money my wife had been investing in our kids’ future had been lost on that rollercoaster of history.

Where had my wisdom come from? I guess at the time when right after the war our parents were forced to buy government bonds at their places of work (such deals were effected almost at gun-point). After a few years the government started raffling off small sums of the whole amount it had “borrowed”, and the “happy” numbers were published in newspapers. My father used to buy the newspapers and peruse the numbers fearing lest he might miss “his” number (in case it was published). I don’t remember him ever winning the bonds lottery. When eventually he lost all hope of winning, the children started using the bond certificates while playing at shopping, and I remember the bond papers lying scattered all over the home.

Maybe due to that input I received as a child I have never played any financial games with the government. The only case was my opening an account with a bank last year. The bank went bust two months ago. I was lucky to have lost the equivalent of only 25 dollars (some people lost thousands).

The phrase from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, which is the title of this blog entry, is poor consolation to those who hear the collectors breathing into the receiver. The consolation may be an announcement offering “anti-collection services” which I saw the other day. The ability of the Ukrainians to find unimaginable niches in business has always kept me amazed.

Entry for April 23, 2009

April 23, 2009

QUALIS PATER, TALIS FILIUS (like father, like son)

Today, April 23, is William Shakespeare’s birthday. Born in 1664, he died 52 years later on the same date. Volumes upon volumes were published on the poet’s role in the formation of present-day mentality.

Today is my Dad’s birthday. The contribution of parents to their descendants’ intellectual and/or professional growth may vary. My father’s share in what I am now as a social being cannot be overestimated.

I did not see much of my father when I was a child. His job was putting up electric pylons all over the country. Even if the family travelled after him for some time, he could still be away from the apartment we were renting at this or that moment, because he had to stay “on the line”, i.e. right in the open field where lines of electric transmission were being built. Each time when Dad arrived home was like family celebration for me.

The first thing that I owe to my father is, probably, my openness to knowledge. “It’s so interesting to learn”, he used to say. Whenever I complained of some school subject being boring, he immediately sat down with me at my desk and spoke about the “dull thing” with so much gusto and enthusiasm that the next day I attended the tedious class with my eyes shining and my heart brimming with love for the course and for the teacher. Incidentally, he always said that the personality of the teacher should have nothing to do with my attitude to the subject proper. “The teacher is always good if you have the subject at your finger tips”. That was another maxim which was accompanying me all my life – when I was a student and – later – in the capacity of a teacher. More globally, the maxim also taught me not to shift blame on someone else if the fault was my own.

Mathematics was highly esteemed in the family. Even though I was the best mathematician in class, a mathematical problem given by the teacher as home work was sometimes really hard to solve, and Dad considered it to be his duty to “help” me. It was no trouble for him to sit over the problem all night through and explain the solution to me in the morning when I got up and was getting ready to go to school.

Regardless of where he was gone, Dad used to send me parcels with books and foreign newspapers. Were there many kids in remote villages who could read the “Daily World” or “Berliner Zeitung” — the latest you could get in Ukraine? I was one of such children (if there were any other kids so much blessed).

If I am proud of being a Ukrainian, speaking Ukrainian, respecting Ukraine’s culture and its history, that was also due to my father’s influence.

He was a good family man. More often than not we were in “dire need” financially, but he always managed to scrape some money from any source accessible remembering that he had a wife and four children to provide for – three sons and a daughter.

It’s funny, but even his shortcomings were molding me positively. Dad was far from being a teetotaler and he was a heavy smoker. All my life I have detested cigarette smoke, neither do I drink — first and foremost because while loving my father I hated those habits in him.

Looking back I must admit that there was one mistake my father made while communicating his experience to me. That was in late August 1956 – just before I had to start my first year at elementary school. Dad took long time to explain the importance of the new stage in my life. “Your new life – the life of labour begins, boy”, he said. “And it’ll go on like that until you retire.” I am about to retire in a few weeks and I see no end to my “life of labour” so far. But then.. how should Dad have known about so distant a perspective? He died of a stroke in his usual work environment (“on the line”) when he was only 49 years old.

Entry for April 17, 2009

April 17, 2009

FIT FOR FURTHER FEATS

I was jogging this morning. It gives you pride to jog the distance of 8 miles when you are 60. It makes you also nervous. Not because of the distance but because of the age. I remember the time some 40 years ago when I served as a conscript with air-borne troops. Every paratrooper goes through the so-called “breakthrough jump”: several initial parachute jumps may be quite ok, but a fourth or fifth jump makes you uncertain about whether you will land uninjuredJ It’s not that you are afraid – your mind tells you that things will be quite safe. But there’s something about your psychic state. You’re just.. nervous for no special reason. My breakthrough jump was a third one. The following jumps were like plain running out of a village hut. Probably, the age of 60 is also a “breakthrough threshold”, and I think the floating through the times will be easier with the future “jubilees” (how many will there be?).

The melody of Yan Frenkel’s “The Watz of Farewell” (the lyrics were written by the poet Konstantin Vanshenkin) was drumming into my ears much of the time when I was doing my rounds in the stadium. I could write “drumming for some unknown reason”, but there’s always a reason for an ear-catcher. In this case it could be the subconscious association between the rounds, my feelings and the lines from the song: “Kruzhyts’a, kruzhyts’a staryj val’sok…” (the old walz is going round and round”), “Nam rasstavat’s’a nastala pora…” (there’s time to say farewell), “Staryj, zabytyj val’sok..” (old walz that has been forgotten), “Ty, sov’ershaya polozhennyj svoj put’, …”( while finishing off the way measured for you).

Well, in his time Konstantin Vanshenkin was also a paratrooper. He might have known something about breakthrough jumps.

Entry for April 16, 2009

April 16, 2009

THE PIRATES OF THE 21ST CENTURY

The liberation of Captain Richard Phillips from the hands of the Somali buccaneers is described in terms of a Hollywood adventure story plot . No denying the fact: the American Navy SEALs and Captain Phillips, “the sailor of sailors”, deserve the highest praise. Until now there has not been a more convincing blow delivered at the pirates. See http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/04/14/2009-04-14_seals_freed_phillips_with_simultaneous_shots.html

and

http://www.nydailynews.com/news/us_world/2009/04/12/2009-04-12_american_captain_richard_phillips_taken_hostage_freed_from_pirates.html

However, I evaluate the event in a different context. For me it is the “war of civilizations” – between East and West. A few hours after the American crew was saved, the pirates defiantly thumbed their noses to the world by capturing four more new ships and taking about another 60 mariners hostage. The name of the pirate representative who was interviewed by the Associated Press about what had happened in the Indian Ocean was not John Smith, or Fritz Handel, or Serge Ivanov. It was Omar Dahir, and the names speaks volumes to me.

It’s the war of civilizations which West is not likely to win. One reason is demographic: the higher birth rate in the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Another is that such concepts as nobleness, tolerance, freedom of choice, value of an individual’s life – the notions that constitute the basis of Christian (and more broadly – of Western) moral – are very sensitive to violence, despotism cultivated in Eastern societies, and in particular, to the most ruthless of methods: executions, beatings, torture and suicide bombings used by Islamic terrorist organizqations. I am not saying that such things as violence, despotism are alien to Ukraine, or Britain, or the U.S.A. But, generally, they are frowned upon and rejected by Western ethics. From what I can judge, those negative values are accepted almost as a norm in the poorest countries of the Old and New World.

On the other hand, what is going on in the Indian Ocean nowadays may be put in the perspective of the eternal struggle between Good and Evil. One of the most important figures in the development of Western Christianity St. Augustine developed the concept of a spiritual City of God distinct from the material City of Man. The end of St.Augustine’s earthly journey was in Roman Africa which at that time (A.D.430) was overrun by Vandals. Augustine spent his final days in prayer, requesting that the penitential Psalms of David be hung on his walls so that he could read them. He directed that the library of the church in Hippo and all the books there should be carefully preserved. Shortly after his death, the Vandals raised the siege of Hippo, but they returned not long afterwards and burned the city. They destroyed all of it but Augustine’s cathedral and library, which they left untouched. Probably, that is the reason, why the Western civilization is still afloat. I doubt whether the vandals of the 21st century will repeat their predecessors’ mistake.

Entry for April 03, 2009

April 3, 2009

ROYAL FOOT-IN-MOUTH

The person standing on Mrs. Michelle Obama’s left is Queen Elizabeth’s husband – Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. When Barack Obama and his spouse visited the royal couple a few days ago, the American President detailed his engagements in the capital earlier in the day “I had breakfast with the Prime Minister, I had meetings with the Chinese, the Russians, David Cameron… And I’m proud to say I did not nod off in one of the meetings,” he said. To which the Duke laughingly replied: “Can you tell the difference between them?”

The journalists considered that offhand comment of the 87-year-old to be impolitic and generally confirming his reputation as the most gaffe-prone royal. They also remembered earlier cases of Prince Philip’s alleged rudeness to foreigners. During a royal visit to China in 1986 he warned British students: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

Seven years later her greeted a Briton in Hungary with the words: “You can’t have been here that long – you haven’t got a pot belly”.

In 1998 he told a student visitor to Papua New Guinea that he had done well not to be eaten and in 1984 he asked a Kenyan woman “You are a woman, aren’t you?”.

Last year, while touring a school in South Wales, he said to a group of belly-dancers there : “I thought Eastern women just sit around smoking pipes and eating sweets all day”.

Unlike the journalists, I admire the Duke’s spontaneity and directness. Why should it be termed “gaffe”? Wouldn’t it be utterly boring if he used only well-polished colourless phrases a la conversation formulas of Queen’s English? Incidentally, the belly-dancers in the latest example liked The Duke being so much down-to-earth. “I think that it’s great that he said it. To be honest it’s an honour to be insulted by royalty. It is something to tell the grandchildren”, one of them said.

Entry for April 02, 2009

April 2, 2009

“…WHITE PEOPLE WITH BLUE EYES”

In a joint press-conference with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Brazilian President Lula da Silva said that that the current global financial crisis had been created by “white people with blue eyes”, who should take responsibility in the efforts to overcome it now.

I’m not against the responsibility or punishing the culprits. What I am against is the racist language on the lips of the leader representing one of the biggest countries of the New World. Those who caused the crisis should be categorized as unscrupulous financiers and politicians who also provoked the greed of the population. However, they cannot be sought according to their special body marks. I’m white-faced and blue-eyed too. Capture me!

Mentioning the color of the skin and eyes The Brazilian President definitely meant the Americans. But if you turn up to be in New York City, or Washington D.C., or in London, you will see no fewer (sometimes even more) of those who represent the colors other than white and blue. On the other hand, those who were historically classified as WASPs are pushed out of the social areas in which they felt quite comfortable before. If I were an American Christian, for one, I would feel hurt to see that the season of Christmas, which constitutes an important part of Anglo-Saxon culture, is often described as “winter holidays” in the official media to please the idol of “political correctness”. If it goes on like this, soon there will appear signs on restaurants: “We cater for non-white trade only”.

With regard to Mr. Lula’s words, it looks like he has a very short memory. In the mid 1990’s, when Brazil mismanaged its affairs, it was bailed out by the same countries to which Mr. Lula is now proposing they “should clean up their mess”.

What was Mr. Gordon Brown’s reaction? He had hoped so much that their joint press conference would be dominated by his own announcement that he will table plans at the current G20 summit in London for a new $100bn fund of credit guarantees to boost world trade. But he only had to swallow the bitter pill.


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