18 July 2012

Wasting Away Glamorously

Ulliam's a relatively new but trendy restaurant near my apartment in downtown Moscow.  The likes of Marat Safin, winner of US Open and Australia Open, Dinara Safina, finalist and semifinalist in all four tennis grand slams, fashion models, actors and literature icons are frequently spotted there.  

This place attracts quite a crowd.  This crowd is mostly interesting.  At times, it is annoying because the crowd is as it blocks my path on the sidewalk, forcing me to wade through bodies drenched with cigarette smoke.  Often, however, there are a few unexpected clients:  Anorexic women waiting for their chance to patronize the restaurant.

Suitable for Ulliam's Glam Scene

I am and old fashion type.  If I go to a restaurant, I expect to eat.  So, the frequenting of the joint by the ultra-skinny anorexic types is a bit of a puzzle to me ... then again, food is probably secondary to the primary goal of rubbing shoulders with glamour.

12 July 2012

Moving Forward Towards the Past

From New York Times:  Bill to Restrict Web Content Is Assailed in Russia

Bill to Restrict Web Content Is Assailed in Russia

MOSCOW — Major Internet sites and human rights advocates sharply criticized a proposed law that would grant the Russian government broad new powers to restrict Web content, ostensibly to protect children from pornography and other harmful material. Critics said the law could quickly lead to repression of speech and a restrictive firewall like the one in China.
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, shut its Russian Web site on Tuesday to protest the proposed measure, and instead posted a large warning on its home page: “Imagine a world without free knowledge.” The notice said the proposed law “can lead to the creation of extrajudicial censorship of the Internet in Russia, including the closure of access to Wikipedia.”
The new measure is part of a wider effort by the Russian authorities to crack down on the opposition since President Vladimir V. Putin’s inauguration in May. They have adopted a law sharply increasing financial penalties on protesters who take part in unsanctioned rallies, begun criminal investigations into several political opposition leaders and considered a plan to require nongovernmental organizations receiving foreign aid to register as foreign agents and face additional auditing and reporting requirements.
With television networks in Russia — and most newspapers and other media outlets — under tight government control, the Internet has emerged as the primary medium for political discourse. Citizens using cellphone cameras documented fraud in last December’s parliamentary elections, then posted video to YouTube and other sites. Organizers of thehuge anti-government protests that followed turned to Facebook and other social media to draw tens of thousands of demonstrators on to the streets of Moscow.
The bill has been moving quickly through the Duma, the lower house of Parliament. An initial version was approved last week and a second version, including some amendments, is scheduled for debate in the chamber on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Wikipedia was joined in opposing the legislation by Yandex, the Russian search engine, and Live Journal, the country’s most popular blog-hosting site, which provides a platform for a number of Russia’s most outspoken political commentators and opponents of Mr. Putin’s government.
VKontakte, a popular Russian social networking site, stripped a message across the top of its home page saying, “the State Duma is considering a law to impose censorship on the Internet.” It directed visitors to Wikipedia’s Russian site, where the only information available on Tuesday was criticism of the legislation. While supporters of the law said it would create new protections for children against illicit content, critics said the Internet was so porous that such content could never be fully stopped while sites like Wikipedia, which has encyclopedia entries on all sorts of adult topics, would be vulnerable to government repression.
“The legislation in its current form will be ineffective,” said Ochir Mandzhikov, a spokesman for Yandex. “At a minimum it is necessary to work further on a conceptual framework and clearly write out the procedures,” he added, “in order to preclude possible abuses.”
Earlier this year, the English-language Wikipedia, American Web sites and technology companies participated in a similar protest effort against two bills in the United States Congress that were aimed at cracking down on piracy. The effort helped derail the legislation.
The proposed law in Russia would establish a registry or so-called “black list” of Internet content that is prohibited for publication, and it would create procedures for blocking Web hosting companies that do not block the banned material.
Law enforcement agents would be empowered to add sites to the registry of banned material, in some cases without obtaining a court order. The bill would allow sites to be blocked using domain names and IP addresses. It would effectively require access to banned material to be cut off within 72 hours, though some details of how the government would enforce the restrictions were not laid out in the bill.
Natalya Kaspersky, chief executive of InfoWatch, a software company that provides data protection services, said some new restrictions were needed in Russia to protect children and that the fears of government censorship seemed overblown.
“We might argue if such ‘black list’ approach is efficient in the modern Internet assuming the sites might quickly move to another address,” Ms. Kaspersky wrote in an e-mail. “However, it is better than nothing.”
She added, “Right now we have a tremendous freedom of speech in mass media, with no prohibited topics at all.”
The Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights, an advisory body, issued a statement sharply criticizing the legislation, saying “the list of resources to be blocked is too broad.”
The group said the law would allow “restricting access to information which is prohibited or undesirable for children, for all users of the Russian segment of the Internet, with no possible appeal procedures and re-examination.” The group added, “Many bona fide Internet resources with legal content may be affected by the mass block since the system would impose severe restrictions on the basis of subjective criteria and assessments.”
“The Internet is the only thing that stands between Russia and the Spiral of Silence,” said Ivan Zassoursky, the chairman of the New Media Department in the Faculty of Journalism at Moscow State University, referring to a theory put forward by the German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, in which people, feeling isolated, silence their own political views.
“The Internet has been a very strong force to counter that,” Mr. Zassoursky said. “It has given life to political discourse in a very free and independent way.”
Andrew Roth contributed reporting.

03 July 2012

Who Moved My Cheese?

And why did he move it?

I have come to conclude that there is a broader psychological experiment going on; moreover, I and any other person dealing with the Russian bureaucracy is a subject of that experiment.  Someone in a white lab coat is watching us rats grope and grovel our way through an endless maze with continuously changing conditions.  Because there is no predictability, the objective of the experiment appears to be gauging reactions to situations that prevent conditioned learning.  There can be no other rational explanation.

Humbly Yours, Serving the Russian Bureaucracy

The agonizing saga of reimporting my car back into Russia continues.  Twice, I have been rejected by the Transportation Authority.  The second excuse for not processing my paperwork was a masterstroke.

The pencil pusher with seemingly magical powers to either grant me some piece of paper or continue to give me the runaround did the latter:  He rejected my application on the grounds that my Russian automobile insurance had my name in Latin letters and, because he was unable to read Latin letters, he could not be sure that the insurance was in fact in my name.  The argument that my passport number on the insurance form matched the number in my passport and the Latin letters in both documents also matched did have any sway.  

My Cheese:  A Stamped Document from a Bureaucrat

Instead of yielding to common sense, the bureaucrat instructed me to go to a specific insurance kiosk and buy a new policy that inscribed my name in Cyrillic letters.  Once I went there, I suspected that the insurance agent and the Transportation Authority bureaucrat had a kickback agreement - where the agent would reward the bureaucrat for new business.  Disgusted, I refused to go along, went to my original agent to request the change, and wasted another day on this dreadfully inefficient and inane process.

Who Moved My Cheese?

Here is the rub:  Last year, the same guy with the same paperwork did not have any problem giving me the paperwork needed to keep my car in Russia for another year without paying a $15,000 "import" tax.  This year, the game was completely different.  A seemingly random barrier was erected to prevent the job from getting done.  Someone moved my cheese!

Ultimately, the question is why the rules are different this time around?  Is it because bureaucrats are trying to do as little as possible while making a coin on the side?  Or is that explanation way too blatant to be true and, in fact, something grander and sinister is going on?  Could it be that someone is doing a vast experiment, with the subjects being subjects of the Russian bureaucracy, and the premise of the experiment being just how far the subjects could be pushed until the break, play dead, or rebel?