Countries we really don’t hear enough about #1: Belgium

23 05 2009

I am often intrigued by the amount of information that hits the press from some countries, whilst others languish in obscurity in our sound bites. The first in this series that we’ll address is Belgium.

Let’s face it, this country ought to sack its PR department if, indeed, it even has one! Now my knowledge of Belgium is, comparatively vast, given my early penchant for Asterix books. “Asterix in Belgium” the third Asterix book I read, after “Asterix the Gaul” and “Asterix in Egypt”.

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Now there are those feisty types that would dispute that my knowledge is still up to date. Are you trying to tell me that Flemish clans no longer wear wings on their helmets, parade in patchwork pants, eat boar and enjoy having a good biffo??

Whilst Belgium is sandwiched rather like leaky corn-relish between the two substantial slabs of bread commonly known as France and Germany and boasts the headquarters of the European Union, most people are hard pressed to even think of a single food that is famous from Belgium. Yep, I caught you thinking waffles and potentially chocolate as well. Waffles and chocolate. Well you could certainly do worse, for goodness sake, the country-formerly-known-as-the-superpower-USSR, gave us Borscht and vodka!

There may be several good reasons why we have shunned this fine country, however, and I have penned a list:

1. They have funny (and somewhat gross) names for things. One of the largest cultural groups are called “Flemish”. To an English-speaker, you might as well call them “Sputumese” or “oystermen”! This is unfortunate as it is disgusting.

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Now this is a photo of the current Prime Minister, whom I would confidently bet my house that you have never heard of, Herman Van Rompey. I am telling the complete truth here. The Prime Minister is named after the place and manner in which he was conceived. This is simply cruel. It would be almost impossible for any world leader to address such a leader on camera without bursting into fits of laughter which could result in an international incident.

2. Belgium is, well, a little dull. The landscape is pretty flat, the people are just pretty nice, they keep their yards tidy but it’s just a bit… bleah. This is evidenced by their most famous of Vitamin B12 rich vegetable exports, Brussels Sprouts. Sure it’s good for you but it tastes like someone smuggled fresh grass clippings onto your plate. It may have been a much better idea to cultivate this rare Brassican in Belgium but call it “Paris Sprouts”. It would have solved an economic as well as a tourist issue in one easy move.

3. Finally, we shun this country ignorantly because it is a cultural chameleon, all things to all men (and women and possibly children and dogs too). Most of you guessed the flag wrong (right?). The correct Belgian flag is at the bottom of this post. Its people speak German, Dutch and French. they like chocolate, have lots of green fields and cathedrals and quaint pubs…Yawn. Just another Eurotrash country. Didn’t start any world wars, doesn’t blow up islands in the Pacific just for fun (I mean, the only thing that ought to be blown up with a “bikini” in the name is a photo of Jane Fonda in one, right??). they don’t have cities famous for organised crimes, prostitutes and cheap Ganja, they are just decent Europeans but a bit… vanilla.

So, to counteract this, Belgium ought to seriously consider what marketing types tend to call a “point of difference”. They could start with their national anthem: “Strength through Unity”. In the immortal words of Rik Mayall: “OH! BOR! RING!”. Instead, I’d recommend the title:”The chicks here are HOT!”.

Flagwise? Go with your strength like the Canadians did. OK, now they have GREAT Maples, presumably for making Maple Syrup. So they ditched the Union Jack for the Maple Leaf. Smart. People LIKE Maple Syrup, people generally LIKE Canadians (until they find out what annoying gits they can be!).

So I’m recommending Belgium go with a purple flag (we really don’t see enough of these) with a yellow circle and a Belgian waffle in the middle, maybe with blueberries on it. Around the circle, in Dutch, German and French, the words:
“Our Chicks are Better. Our Waffles are crunchier!”.

Now, one further thing would help immensely. Investment in Football. The country should undertake a strategic plan to put the nation into calculated debt to buy the world’s best football players and have them sponsored by Belgium’s biggest waffle company. Then they can start getting their bums into gear and start winning the European cup. This way, their expensive kits will be copied the most in China and Belgium can gain the political support of the world’s largest nation without lifting a finger to invest in tricky things like international diplomacy. This also ensures that Belgium will get into the news around the world on a weekly basis, at least.

Now, I realise I should be paid for advice like this. In lieu, please send waffles to PO BOX 1430 Brisbane GPO.

Next time in our “where are they now?” country specials…PORTUGAL!!!! Just how orgasmic IS that chicken…?

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Galaxy-Building Stimulus Packages

21 05 2009

Now this brings us to that most collossal waste of Imperial tax-payers money in recent Galactic times (or possibly a long, long time ago, depending on when you are reading this!!), the Imperial Death Star.

 

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Not content with the domination of most of the habitable galaxy the Imperial Government embarked on this essential infrastructure/defence spending white elephant during what was obviously a painful and protracted galactic economic depression. I mean, even DIY droids made by nine year old water farmer’s sons were hot property, as previously highlighted. So deep was this depression that Imperial Commanders were borrowing remodelled German SS uniforms from the mid 20th Century, Star Cruisers were universally stripped of their curtain budgets and by the sounds of Darth Vader’s characteristically raspy voice, even Ventolin was a rare commodity in these times.

Nevertheless, this government saw fit to embark on the most ambitious building and defence program the galaxy had even seen: a ray gun the size and approximate shape of a planet! Now the engineers should have been sacked for similar reasons that airconditioning installers were sacked in the 20th Century when a slew of movies showed just how possible it actually was to infiltrate the most secure of establishments through airconditioning ducts. In truth, the Death Star had channels the width of Olympic swimming pools leading to a nuclear core which was only ever going to end in tears (and twenty trillion pieces).

In characteristic defiance, the rebel alliance might have urged a cash package which might have given every stormtrooper enough for a holiday on Bespin and enough exotic alcoholic beverages to get over the irritating fact that their substandard weapons were routinely thwarted by old men in brown dresses. The economy may have improved and maybe even the droid markets recovered to more affordable levels. At the very least, it would have left a great many stormtroopers in no fit state to use their guns to plug any more permanent orifices into Rebel forces the next day in a surprise attack.

Some blamed the economic circumstances on the despotic and tyrannical megalomania of the Emperor but I suspect it was the more benign political intent to get the unions off his back. Fortunately for him, there were more than a few senior union Workplace Health and Safety representatives on the ill-fated Death Star incident(s).

So as tough as things get here in Australia, we should always take the time to consider that some bugger somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away always has it worse off than us.





Star Wars Theory 101: Droid value fluctuations

16 05 2009

With all the froth and bubble about the Australian Federal Budget this week in the media, it seemed that the public would take anything, even (yet) another NRL animal saga to distract our attention from a budget which was, almost in equal measure, as bland as it was terrifying.

Given my wish to avoid polluting this fledgling blog with any discussion of NRL (and boycotting even the temptation to grace it with a tag) I think we should deal with a far more relevant and interesting issue of interest. Namely, the economics and politics of “Star Wars”, since this has a very real effect on more of our population, here in Australia than either NRL or Federal Politics (mind you, the “Life cycle of newts” may well rank better than these!).

The most intriguing dilemma I have with the economy of Star Wars concerns the true value of droids. How much are they worth??

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Some have suggested that droids (even old models like dear old C3PO and R2D2) must be of considerable value. Evidence for this viewpoint includes the fact that Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia routinely waste valuable seconds waiting for these tardy droids in close escapes. Memorable examples include waiting for R2 on the flight deck on Bespin (in the Empire Strikes Back), recovering this same clumsy droid from the menacing jaws of the Saarlac in Return of the Jedi (is the Saarlac perhaps Iron deficient, one might wonder?) and Chewbacca carrying bits of  C3PO around Bespin with one arm, fending off Stormtroopers with the other and nothing more than a preened coat of fuzz as armour.

Added to this fine logic we have supporters who argue that R2, far from being a flip-top bin on wheels, is actually a powerful lock picker. Perhaps the makers of the amazing high-tech architecture often present should have invested more in security than doors than go “Phwwizzzt”. Nevertheless, if I were confronted by trained imperial thugs with blasters I would kiss that droid all over his bald Titanium head if he could zip me through a steel door instead. Heck, I might even shout him a cask of sump oil if we managed to get out of there alive!

Of course, on the other side of this debate we have what is, in classic Star Wars Economic Theory, known as the “Tatooine dilemma”.

On Tatooine, predominantly in Star Wars: A New Hope, though importantly also in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, we see what can only be described as a debasement of the Droid Market.

Luke’s Uncle Owen is so sand poor (excuse the pun) that he is barely managing to eke out an existence as a water farmer on this desolate planet. The twin sun system, no doubt responsible for the increased evaporation, or perhaps the  reason is global warming induced by pod racers running on fossil fuels. In any case, they are by no means affluent given the clothes they are forced to wear (which we see from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were in vogue over 40 years previous).

Nevertheless, when the local Jawa Carboot sale rolls into town on serious Caterpillar tread, we see Luke and his Uncle buy not one but TWO droids while still having to feed the family on Rancor Vomit soup. Of course, having often had to struggle up sand dunes in a wheelchair (OK, I haven’t but this is not to say that the day might one day come!) I have to query the utility of R2 and his obviously urban locomotion in that kind of terrain (personally, I’d have gone for the diesel R5D4 with Sunraysia tyres). 

In Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia, disguised as bounty hunter Boushh, eschews the more traditional home-baked  lasagne or bottle of Margaret River Merlot as a polite gift for Jabba for our slighty worn R2D2. In return, his expression is more one of an indifferent (or possibly constipated) slug far more than one who has just won the lottery. It seems that R2 is worth squat diddly on Tatooine.

Now there is further evidence that these droids are neither expensive nor complicated to construct. In Phantom Menace, a 9 year old Anakin Skywalker manages, rather coincidentally (given the sheer number of droids presumably available in the known universe) to have constructed the very same droid that his son would buy in the same place second hand many decades later. Saving his hard earned allowance, possibly earned raking the sand traps on the ninth hole, Anakin buys enough bits from the Tatooine equivalent of Dick Smith’s Electronics to make his very own working droid! And it speaks over six million languages!!

Now one has to ask the question why the droid market became so depressed in Tatooine, when elsewhere in the galaxy, rebel alliance freedom fighters would risk their lives to save them?

I would suggest the lack of bike paths might be a serious issue for a droid like R2. Which raises serious doubts about the intelligence of Uncle Owen and even Luke himself given their local topography. By extrapolation, even Anakin himself must not be too bright genetically, being the source of at least half Luke’s genes. This is further evidenced by the appalling acting by Anakin as he grows up in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. So any thick Tatooine hick can knock a droid together!

A protocol droid like C3PO would be similarly anachronistic on Tatooine, being a rough trading port full of bounty hunters, weird creatures with anger management issues and has-been lounge bands. Who really needs to hear a constant stream of expletives in six million languages? With the amount of foul goop spewing from the mouths of some of these vile creatures as they speak, the last thing you need is to understand the even viler intent of their strident communication. Ignorance in this case not so much as bliss as accepting the lesser of two evils.

So we have an unanswered question on the true value of these metal misfits. Han Solo, attempting to relieve himself of his debt to Jabba the Hut, perhaps would have done far better to fill the Millenium Falcon full of junk droids, have his faithful Wookie fix ’em up and flog ’em all off to Rebels getting X-wings ready for attack on the Death Star! If only Han hadn’t dropped out of his business degree to join the Texas Hold ’em circuit!!





Just How Fast is the Escape Velocity for Cultural Cringe?

14 05 2009

I declined a suggestion today that I should permanently relocate from this fine city of Brisbane for daring to suggest that it may well be culturally inferior to its southern cousins. I’m sure this was more parochial zeal than an honest assessment of the coming of age of this erstwhile self-conscious Cinderella of Australian capital cities, nonetheless it got me thinking about perceptions of cultural richness.

My assertions about Brisbane were, principally, that it lacked the diversity and innovation in cuisine found in both Melbourne and Sydney and that it failed to “wag the dog” of fashion houses across the nation. In short, the food offered in restaurants is more similar than different and the city tends to follow, rather than set, fashion trends.

Any such assessment is bound to cause a stir amongst those understandably loyal to their city and, predictably, the exceptions to these (apparently flawed) rules began to flow. I was rather pleased about this, since I picked up another couple of good tips for restaurants that will either confirm my hypothesis or give me a bloody good feed! It was thought that I was generalising too much and that there were both good restaurants and a healthy representation of high fashion in this sunshine city.

Herein lies a dilemma. A city’s cultural reputation is almost entirely based on generalisation. It is a perception. Though this got me thinking about other cities around the world and how they may become centres for rich culture.

It seems not to be based purely on population alone. China boasts three of the ten most populous in our world and yet the meagre infiltration of Chinese culture to the west has been largely donated through one small city state to the South, not even on this list. Similarly Mexico City, Brasilia, Mumbai and (arguably) even Tokyo, whilst appreciated, do not contribute significantly to either high fashion or cuisine globally.

Likewise, the age of the city has no strong correlation either. Whilst cities like London, Paris and Rome are well into their third millennia now, the same cannot be said of New York or Sydney, for example.

So just what is it that makes one city more likely to become a rich cultural centre than another? I think I have found a reasonable yardstick, having trawled some data on Australian capital cities on the Australian Bureau of Statistics website.

I would venture to suggest that the two most important factors in becoming a leader in culture are firstly: the underlying diversity in culture of that city and secondly: the proportion of high end wealth that is resident in that city that can patronise establishments offering high food and fashion. The first is a measure of cultural capacity whilst the second is a measure of economic capacity.

When scouring the ABS, it is rare you manage to grab the exact data set that would be ideal for your research. However, I was fortunate to have found a fairly reasonable indicator for economic capacity. I would suggest that the comparisons of mean net worth for each of our capitals may serve this purpose. The reason for using this measure, rather than perhaps mean income is, frankly, that if you can honestly afford to drown in high fashion, you probably don’t have to work! Secondly, very high net worth individuals will tend to skew averages “North” for these cities (which is why medians are more commonly used in demographics, being far less affected) so cities with higher mean that median values ought to have a higher proportion of high end wealth in them. What we have then, is a broad indicator of the weight of the HUGE end of town that might support an economy of high fashion.

Now to the cultural richness. This is perhaps a little easier to pin down and the proportion of residents born overseas is perhaps a good starting point. Whilst not perfect, it at least gives some indication of fairly recent migration. Now some would argue that the cultural richness of a place like Melbourne might be disguised a little, since many of non-caucasian heritage may be second or third generation by now. I think this is probably the case with Melbourne in particular, though some would also argue that over time, a blending or homogenisation of such culture might also water down what might have been a very rich mix some decades ago. So this measure, I think is a reasonable gauge of the cultural complexity of a city.

Thus we have the average net worth ( in $AUD millions) for the city and the percentage of those born overseas. When the two are multiplied to give an index (perhaps a Cultural Leadership Index?), we find the following interesting results:

Sydney: 31.7
Perth: 31.3
Melbourne: 28.9
Adelaide: 23.7
Brisbane: 21.7
Canberra: 21.6
Darwin: 18.3
Hobart: 12

This table has a few surprises and some predictable results (what? you seriously thought of travelling to Canberra for a spot of shopping and a great meal?).

What this does tend to support is the general perception that Australians have of Brisbane as being somewhat casual and “down market”. Perhaps confirmed when you compare the number of shoppers in major centres who feel it appropriate to be browsing sans footwear when compared with fellow Aussies down south perhaps?

Indeed, Brisbane is quite culturally homogenous and positively socialist in wealth accumulation when compared with both Sydney and Melbourne. However, before I start checking my new Delica for carbombs from born-and-bred-Brisvegans, the last point I have to make is the most salient: Who lives here for the high fashion??

Indeed, Brisbane’s climate, quality of life , employment prospects and well, just the vibe, is real, unpretentious and snug like a pair of worn-in Doc Martens! Big enough for fun, small enough to not take itself too seriously, sounds pretty alright don’t you think, mate?

Which perhaps leads me to complete the point that began this blog, should I leave this fine city for daring to suggest that it isn’t a gravitational centre for high culture? Au contraire! Life is more important than food and the body more than clothes and that may well be, deep down, why many of us choose to live here.

The Courier Mail suggested that this “Cinderella City” may just be the happiest city in Australia. To Sydney and Melbourne we may well say “let them eat cake (or truffles in a bed of braised pecans in yak milk!)”.