Blog Archive

Monday, June 1, 2015

Pollsters get it wrong again, Anne Frank's House, Amsterdam, you can TalkTalk but not with me, FIFA.

The Pollsters got it wrong again. The only thing that was clear from all the polls prior to the British General Election on May 7th, was that no party had sufficient support to gain an overall majority and that we were certain to have another 5 years of coalition. And the possible combinations of who was going to ally with whom were endless. All of the polls leading right up to the election were clear that neither the Labour Party nor the Conservatives would have an overall majority and I believed them. Despite their inability to predict anywhere near an accurate outcome to the Scottish Independence referendum last year, I believed them. So the results were quite a shock (although I read today that Tony Blair privately predicted a victory for Cameron a few weeks ago), both surprising and predictable:
  • The Conservative Party got an overall majority (331 Seats and 37% of the vote) – surprising
  • The Labour Party did very badly (232 Seats and 30% of the vote) – surprising
  • The Scottish Nationalists virtually wiped the board in Scotland – predictable and surprising (56 seats with 5% of the vote)
  • The UK Independence Party got 12.5% of the vote but just one seat – predictable 
  • The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out – predictable and surprising (they lost 49 seats and held onto just 8 seats with 8% of the vote)
These votes from across the UK converted to the number of Westminster seats shown below:

We now end up with a very unbalanced country and I suspect an awful lot of frustrated people. The number of people voting for a party is no longer sufficiently aligned to the number of seats won leaving many people questioning the legitimacy of our first-past-the–post electoral system. Unfortunately the new majority party is unlikely to do much to change it as it worked for them! They allowed the LibDems a referendum 4 years ago on this very subject as part of the coalition deal and change was firmly rejected by the British people! The only places across the UK that voted in favour were Oxford, Cambridge and a few parts of London. One of the main challenges in the new parliament is a contingent of 56 Scottish Nationalist MPs who vote in Westminster on all UK matters, led by Nicola Sturgeon who is not even an MP, while none of the Westminster MPs has a say in the ever increasing powers handed over to the Scottish Parliament. Or to put it simply, the Scots vote on English matters but the English can’t vote on Scottish matters. And the same applies to Wales and Northern Ireland who also have their own parliaments. When you look at a new colour coded electoral map of the UK, we are more divided than ever. Scotland is yellow (SNP) and England is blue (Con) apart for the inner cities which are mainly red (Lab). UKIP and the LibDems with over 20% of the votes between them are nowhere to be seen! It is very hard to see how the current system can be described as ‘fair and democratic’ even if you have a good imagination. I suppose, however, we can say that the party that got the largest number of votes did actually win, so it could be a lot worse. The days when a winner gets over 50% of the votes are long gone, although the AV voting system proposed in the referendum four years ago would have taken people’s second choice into account to ensure that any local MP was selected by a majority of voters once their second, third and further choices were taken into account. How much longer can the current system continue without alteration?

We visited Amsterdam for a long weekend and decided that one of the things we wanted to do was to visit Anne Frank’s House following a number of strong recommendations. On our first day we went to have a look as we were worried how long the queue would be. On Friday afternoon the queue was really very long and it didn’t look as if it was moving. So we decided to return at 8am on Saturday morning. We were lucky as we only had to wait for 90 minutes. It was cold so I went to get some lattes which warmed up our hands and then the last 20 minutes of queuing was in the sun. The experience of viewing where the Frank family, the van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer were hidden for two years is both fascinating and moving. Eight people disappeared overnight and didn’t come out of the blacked-out annexe at the rear of the building until an unknown person informed the Nazis and they were removed to the death camps where Anne finally died of typhus in March 1945 at the age of 15 just a month before Bergen-Belsen was liberated. Her mother and sister also perished as did all of the others except for her father who was the only survivor of the eight of them. He returned home after the war to discover he was alone. Miep Gies-Santrouschitz and Bep Voskuijl who worked for Otto Frank and had helped them to hide and sourced them food, discovered Anne’s diaries and Otto Frank first published them in 1947 after Miep returned them to him when she saw Anne would not be back. They have since been translated into dozens of languages and are one of the best selling books globally. ‘I want to go on living even after my death’ Anne wrote in her diary and her dream was to become a journalist and then a writer. Little did she know she would become one of the most famous writers in the world. In her House, you can see her checked red diary that she was given on her 13th birthday and then the notebooks she continued on after the original diary was full. Just looking at her elegant perfect handwriting and the pictures she glued up on her small bedroom wall is quite emotional. The museum is full of people, but never too many to see all of the rooms and exhibits in as much depth as you want. All of the visitors are respectful and nobody talks except for the voices in short videos, mostly of contemporaries of Anne such as Miep and her father that play on a loop in some of the rooms. The House visit is in three parts: Otto Frank’s factory, the secret annexe and the new building which was part financed by Steven Spielberg who visited whilst filming Schindler’s List. The new building provides additional facilities at the end of the visit including a shop, café and cinema hall. As we came out of the House into the sunshine lost in thought and pain, we could see that the queue was now at least double the length we left it at meaning that it was going to be at least four hours’ wait for the people just arriving. The fact that so many (mostly young) people were prepared to wait so long to see a few empty rooms in an old Amsterdam townhouse is perhaps the best tribute to Anne and her friends and family.

The 4 hour queue of mainly young people when we came out

The visitor entrance to the house with a reflection of the canal in the glass

This is Otto Frank's original house and factory. The museum extends out to the right.

Of course there were many other things to see in Amsterdam. The most obvious and most pleasing to the eye are the rows of beautiful townhouses bordered by canals with bridges every few hundred metres. There are bicycles everywhere, whizzing around faster than you can work out in every direction. The city and its houses and canals were planned on a grid system in the 17th century based around the river Amstel than runs roughly through the centre. Bicycles are one of the best ways to get around as many of the roads are too narrow for cars and there is nowhere to park. And the locals clearly have mastered the art of cycling as they do it in almost any conditions. We saw people smoking on their bikes, people holding umbrellas up to keep dry as they cycled and groups of tourists on their bright red bikes out for the day. Otherwise the public transport is good; there are regular river buses (slow and mostly for tourists) and super fast efficient trams. The same 30 minute journey by boat took just 3 minutes by tram to get across the city! We walked most places to get to see more of the city. 

Amsterdam cyclists with umbrella!
A typical canal lined with narrow townhouses
A bridge every few hundred meters with bicycles everywhere!
The townhouses are designed with windows that are smaller on the top floors in order to make them look larger and more elegant. They are all very narrow but deep. This is because when they were built, taxes were levied according to the width of your house! Another great example of how taxes distort behaviour with the ingenuity of man to find a legal way to save money! Some things never change. Some of the interiors are very beautiful but the staircases are unusually steep – often looking like an elegant ladder. Not much scope for large people! At the top of the houses a large ‘hoist beam’ looking like a massive hook protrudes on the outside. It is still used to transport large objects to the upper floors on the outside of the house and then through the large windows as the staircases are too narrow. We saw a mattress being hoisted up in this way. The houses are also built with the upper floors leaning out a little to assist the hoisting process! All quite fascinating. 
Here is one of the hoists in action. They were pulling a mattress up to the top floor.
We went from the city centre where we were staying down to the museum district to visit three quite different places: the Rijksmusuem, the Van Gogh Museum and the Concertgebouw. The Rijksmuseum has just been re-opened after extensive renovation and is very impressive. It is clearly one of the world’s greatest museums for old Dutch masters and middle ages and renaissance works. We had tickets for the special ‘Old Rembrandt’ exhibition but unfortunately for me, once I had seen a few self-portraits of the old master, I had seen them all. Beautifully painted but as boring as hell. They had a couple of modern pieces (literally a couple) including a Mondrian but otherwise it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Talking of tea, I had an excellent mint tea in the museum café. The Dutch serve fresh mint tea with a pot of honey and it is refreshing and tasty! In the centre of the impressive new café, is a vase with tulips. Why is he telling us this you may ask? Well, in the museum we saw a number of old tulip vases – they are like enormous candelabras with holes for dozens of tulips all the way up. And when they are filled with exotic tulips, they are quite a spectacle to behold. Tulips of every colour; plain ones, multi-coloured ones, frilly ones, and so on. Sorry to say I found this (and the Rembrandt self-portrait copied below) of more interest that most of the other exhibits in this stunning Louvre-scale museum. The Van Gogh Museum was truly impressive for anyone who likes Van Goghs. And that is clearly a large number of people as the queues were even more impressive than the size of the Rijksmuseum. Even the special ‘no-line’ pre-booked ticket queue was a good half hour wait! For me our special treat was the Sunday morning concert at the Concertgebouw. This is the name of the Amsterdam concert hall and of its orchestra. It is one of the three best concert halls in the world from an acoustics perspective and the orchestra is one of the best alongside the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony etc. We managed to get tickets for the Sunday concert which that day was the brass section of the orchestra playing a series of classical pieces by Saint Saens, Shostakovich and others. We were great expecting brass band type sounds but instead the quality, beauty and sensitivity of the horns, trombones, trumpets, euphoniums, and percussion was so outstanding that this was one of the most beautiful live concerts I have attended. 
Rijksmuseum with advert for Late Rembrandt
Tulips from Amsterdam behind the Rijksmuseum 
Mint tea with honey
Self-portrait by Rembrandt 1689
The Night Watch by Rembrandt - 'Who stole my burger?'
Tulip vase with tulips in the Rijksmuseum cafe
The Concertgebouw
Wherever we went, the Dutch people were wonderful; efficient like the Germans but with a sense of humour and very laid back at the same time. We went to various cafes and restaurants and the quality everywhere was good; it was asparagus season and we tried an all asparagus menu in the hotel and it was excellent. Very good white Dutch asparagus. We had a look in a supermarket and the quantity and variety of fresh produce was striking. On the way to and from our hotel from the station, we passed through the middle of the famous red light district. I think the most surprising thing about it is how it exists next to regular businesses and cafés as if it is perfectly normal. Families walk past as the women in the glass-fronted shops sit on stools in their bikinis waiting to be picked up. Everyone just gets on with their business regardless in the same laid-back Dutch attitude. We loved Amsterdam and we loved the Dutch people so we will go back to the Netherlands.

Woe betide anyone who wants to have one of their paid for options removed on their Talk Talk telephone account! Up until now, I have been able to login to my account and add and remove options such as daytime calls or international calls at the click of a button. This was definitely one of the attractions of the service – being able to manage it all online rather than having to attempt to get through to a contact centre and talk to someone (10 seconds rather than 10 minutes). So today, I was somewhat aggravated to see I could not remove one of my calling packages (that costs £7.50 per month but is hardly used). I had to ring a telephone number that was provided in order that they could talk me out of reducing my expenditure. Fortunately I got through quite fast only having to listen to a couple of messages. I then got 10 minutes of being sold to. Would I like the same service for free for 6 months? Why not? Would I like to switch to their mobile sim only service? Why not? Would I like to take their TV service? Why not? Despite the fact that I have very good reasons why I don’t want to buy the services (for example if I switch to their Vodafone mobile service I will no longer be able to make or receive calls at home or at my office as it is outside their coverage area) they persisted in trying to sell this stuff to me. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, once I eventually got the £7.50 unused option removed and hung up (is there anything else I can help you with today?), I received another ‘customer service courtesy call’ a couple of hours later. He started off by asking me to confirm my address and I refused as I don’t just hand out my personal details to some random person who calls even if they say they are from Talk Talk. I am now looking for alternative suppliers. It seems my loyalty is rewarded by being hassled and sold to and my time wasted.

FIFA corrupt? Surely not? On May 26th, simultaneously in Zurich and Miami, the authorities swooped and arrested 14 executives all currently or previously high-ranking football marketing officials, together with car loads of documents that were seized. They have been accused of accepting tens of millions of dollars in bribes over the last 20 years in exchange for various things including buying votes to host the Football World Cup in South Africa (2010), Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). Over the last couple of years there has been no end of accusations and evidence published in the Sunday Times to this effect, citing Jack Warner, one of the men arrested yesterday as one of the main culprits. Apparently they are going to be extradited to the United States to face trial. US law allows for such an extradition provided there is at least some link to the US, which in this case there is as CONCACAF, the Football Association which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean used to have Jack Warner as its president. The Association is for the US what UEFA is for Europe. Apparently the US authorities, with the help no doubt of other sympathetic countries have been working on this case for years. It is said that at the London 2012 Olympics, the authorities were able to record conversations that took place between the FIFA officials that they may be using as evidence. Last year, in order to refute allegations from the Sunday Times and others, FIFA hired a very respectable and well-known lawyer, Michael J. Garcia, to investigate and report for them. Mr. Garcia is a former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and is credited with some of the highest profile international terrorist cases. Unfortunately, FIFA decided not to publish his report in full and as a result he resigned last December as independent ethics investigator for FIFA. It is about time that football cleaned up its act and showed the world that decisions should be based on free votes and not money. The way FIFA has acted and been allowed to act for decades is an absolute disgrace and an embarrassment to sport in general. The only surprising thing about this is that Sepp Blatter, the 79-year-old man who has been FIFA’s high profile president and leader through this period and for the last 20 years, is still clinging on and refuses to resign. On the contrary, he has just been re-elected for another 4 years, voted in by a lrage majority of the 4200+ countries that each have a vote. A vote from Brazil has the same value as a vote from Andorra. Football is probably the most popular sport in the world and its leadership and governing bodies need to set an example to the followers of the sport. Blatter and his cronies, those who don’t end up in prison at least, should step aside and make the way for a new generation of people who love the sport but understand what a democratic voting process looks like and wish to set an example for the vast millions of aspiring young footballers across the world to follow. How much longer can the current system continue without alteration?
Sepp Blatter, the man who has presided over FIFA for the last 2 decades whilst tens of millions in bribes were paid to corrupt officials working for him. 
"He should go, and the sooner that happens the better" David Cameron speaking about Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, just re-elected for a fourth term, on May 29th 2015.

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