Weekly retrospective 27-04-2014

The weather has been gorgeous recently in St. Petersburg. The sky is clear and blue, and the sun is brighter and warmer for longer every day. The temperature ranges from pleasantly cool to deliciously warm, though the breezes in the evenings can still be a bit chilly.

In my apartment complex, the trees are laden with big fluffy catkins, and leaf buds are swelling everywhere; a few trees are now in full leaf. Sparrows, pigeons, and other birds are singing enthusiastically, and fluttering low overhead as they pursue their courtships.

In Russia, supermarket loyalty cards get you an immediate discount of 7-8% at the till -none of this nonsense of acquiring ‘points’. I don’t have one, of course – but it also turns out that it’s absolutely normal for the cashier, having established that a customer doesn’t have a card, to ask whether anyone else in the queue will lend theirs, and more often than not someone will. So, through the kindness of strangers, I often get a cheap grocery shop. I asked my students about this, and they were astonished that I would even wonder about it: it’s absolutely natural to them that you’d help someone out. Don’t we do this in the West, they ask?








My office is on Kazanskaya Street, off Petersburg’s main street, Nevskiy Prospekt. If I walk down to the junction, I find myself looking at the pre-revolutionary Singer Building. Once the offices of the Singer Sewing Machine Company (and base of the American Consulate during the First World War), it’s now a bookshop and cafe. The top floor, however, is the home of VK.com, or VKontakt, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. There was some talk of Edward Snowden getting a job there when he first arrived in Russia, though that seems to have not happened. The company’s founder, Pavel Durov, caused a minor scandal a couple of years ago when he made paper aeroplanes out of 5000-rouble notes and threw them out of his office window on a public holiday. He isn’t laughing these days, though.Under his leadership, VK refused to give the government access to the account details of NGO activists. Now he finds himself sacked, and in exile. At least he showed more of a spine than the US tech companies who rolled over and gave the NSA immediate access to their data.

This is part of a trend towards the balkanization of the internet, as countries wall off internet activities. I saw this happen in China, and now it’s beginning in Russia. Another example, unforunately, of US over-reach leading to unexpected blowback.

Also on a tech note, Nokia disappeared this week. I used to be a huge fan – as did most of China. I also worked with them a lot as a consultant in Singapore, and I really liked their culture. They never recovered from the impact of the iPhone, though, and now they’re gone.

In the wider world, the crisis in Ukraine rumbles on. Things are looking good for Russia, despite the verbiage coming out of Washington.

I’ve never seen such a unanimity of opinions during all post-communist period. It seems that the Russian people have finally restored its self-esteem and identity. For the first time since the collapse of the USSR, we are proud of our country. I believe that further sanctions would only reinforce these feelings. Following the successful Olympic and Paralympic Games and the peaceful reintegration of Crimea with Russia, Putin’s rating has skyrocketed. According to the VCIOM All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center, since the beginning of 2014, Vladimir Putin’s rating has risen 15 percent and stands at 75.7 percent – the highest in the last five years. While enjoying the powerful support of his citizens, Putin can proceed with geopolitical redesigning together with the ASEAN and BRICS partners.

So writes Tatiana Yugay, who apparently teaches world economy, international economic relations, and economic theory at the Moscow State University of Economics. She’s written a very interesting 3-part article over on Ugo Bardi’s blog; it’s worth reading. More generally, Russia is working on a trade deal with Iran that will demolish the US-led sanctions regime against the Iranians and destabilise the dollar in the process – something that is also being brought closer by Russia’s closer collaboration with the Chinese. US officials appear incapable of comprehending that their stint as the world’s only hyperpower was brief and is now over; instead they say whatever justifies their actions in their own minds – even if it’s plainly not true. The Daily Kos has an updated article about the recent research demonstrating that US policy is set by the rich, and by corporate interests. It’s hardly surprising that the Russians have now apparently stopped bothering to even listen.

As a footnote, there’s an odd story going around. It’s accepted that an unarmed Russian warplane repeatedly buzzed a US Navy destroyer, which shortly afterwards docked in a Romanian port. What’s strange is this story alleging that the Russian plane successfully jammed the destroyer’s defence systems. Is it true and being hushed up? Are the Russians for some reason spreading this as disinformation? Or is it simply a fabrication? I don’t know. Odd, though.

On a completely different, but still Russian-related, note, this is an interesting article about an archive of historical photos of Russian prison tattoos.

China has problems of its own. Wolf Richter has an interesting story, indicating that Japanese companies are withdrawing from China. It’s hardly surprising, given the degree of anti-Japanese feeling that Zhongnanhai has been whipping up, but it appears to have blindsided the Communist leadership.

Where all of this is taking us is impossible to predict, but I doubt it will look anything like the world we’ve known for the last few decades.

In South-east Asia, there’s another story about Silicon Bali: sign me up, I say… Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, is looking very frail these days, which is causing concern for many. Peranakan food, a mixture of Chinese and Malay cuisine which is found in the old British Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, is apparently the latest trend in London. Good – the more people experience this delicious food, the better! Less happily, Singapore’s near neighbour Brunei has apparently reintroduced death by stoning, which is a sad and regressive move. The WSJ has a very interesting photo essay on the Walled City in Hong Kong – which, because it was built on the site of an Imperial Chinese fort, was technically sovereign Chinese territory throughout the period of British rule.Like so many other interesting things, I first learned about it in a William Gibson novel…

The Royal Welsh Fusiliers were pretty noteworthy during the First World War; they produced the poets Hedd Wyn, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves. I was interested to discover this week that they also had their own sword produced for close-quarters combat!

As I noted recently, my five-year plan involves working in the Middle East for a couple of years in order to save up some money. I’ll have to watch developments there carefully, though: it seems there’s a growing problem with Bird Flu there. Nasty… It would be  shame to have come through the SARS outbreak in Singapore just after I moved there, only to be clobbered in Saudi Arabia by a different bug…


Image credit: Rearview Mirror by user Katie_photographer on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.

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