WHEN Estonia regained its independence in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, less than half its population had a telephone line and its only independent link to the outside world was a Finnish mobile phone concealed in the foreign minister’s garden. Two decades later, it is a world leader in technology. Estonian geeks developed the code behind Skype, Hotmail and Kazaa (an early file-sharing network). In 2007 it became the first country to allow online voting in a general election. It has among the world’s zippiest broadband speeds and holds the record for start-ups per person. Its 1.3m citizens pay for parking spaces with their mobile phones and have their health records stored in the digital cloud. Filing an annual tax return online, as 95% of Estonians do, takes about five minutes. How did the smallest Baltic state develop such a strong tech culture?
The foundation was laid in 1992 when Mart Laar, Estonia’s prime minister at the time,defibrillated the flat-lining economy. In less than two years his young government (average age: 35) gave Estonia a flat income-tax, free trade, sound money and privatisation. New businesses could be registered smoothly and without delays, an important spur for geeks lying in wait. Feeble infrastructure, a legacy of the Soviet era, meant that the political class began with a clean sheet. When Finland decided to upgrade to digital phone connections, it offered its archaic 1970s analogue telephone-exchange to Estonia for free. Estonia declined the proposal and built a digital system of its own. Similarly, the country went from having no land registry to creating a paperless one. “We just skipped certain things…Mosaic [the first popular web browser] had just come out and everyone was on a level playing field,” recalls Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the president. Not saddled with legacy technology, the country’s young ministers put their faith in the internet.
A nationwide project to equip classrooms with computers followed and by 1998 all schools were online. In 2000, when the government declared internet access to be a human right, the web spread into the boondocks. Free Wi-Fi became commonplace. Rubber stamps, carbon paper and long queues gave way to “e-government”. The private sector followed: the sale of Skype to eBay in 2005, for $2.6 billion, created a new class of Estonian investors, who made tens of millions of euros from their shareholdings—and have been putting their experience, and their windfalls, to good use. Today Tehnopol, a business hub in Tallinn, the perky capital, houses more than 150 tech companies. Given the country’s tiny domestic market, start-ups have been forced to think global, says Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s first employee and co-founder of TransferWise, a peer-to-peer money-transfer service whose customers are spread across Europe and America. According to the World Bank, over 14,000 new companies registered in Estonia in 2011, 40% more than during the same period in 2008. High-tech industries now account for about 15% of GDP.
How can other countries—that lack Estonia’s small size and its clean sheet—follow its example? “It’s sort of obnoxious to say, ‘Do what we did’,” says Mr Ilves. But he submits that Estonia’s success is not so much about ditching legacy technology as it is about shedding “legacy thinking”. Replicating a paper-based tax-filing procedure on a computer, for instance, is no good; having such forms pre-filled so that the taxpayer has only to check the calculations has made the system a success. Education is important, too: last year, in a public-private partnership, a programme called ProgeTiiger (“Programming Tiger”) was announced, to teach five-year-olds the basics of coding. “In the 80s every boy in high-school wanted to be a rock star,” says Mr Hinrikus. “Now everybody in high-school wants to be an entrepreneur.”
Normally music isn’t welcomed into this sort of intellectual context. It’s hived off into a separate little box marked “arts”. And yet what could be more relevant to a discussion on human nature than music, which helps to make us what we are?
Perhaps this accounted for the intensity of the engagement I felt in that lecture room. Classical music wasn’t offered as something rarefied, to be savoured by connoisseurs who are “in the know.” It was part of a great story of how we in the West have tried to make sense of ourselves, as human beings. The tone of the lectures helped in that regard. Rather than presenting our subjects as great monuments of culture, we were all keen to stress their human qualities. I tried to show how classical music didn’t drop from heaven fully-formed; it’s an untidy mix of many different distinguishing features, which keep changing through time. Professor Frank Furedi presented Thomas Hobbes not as some transcendent disembodied genius, but as someone wrestling with the concrete political circumstances of the turbulent times he lived through.
The result was eager curiosity, which paid due homage to these great figures of the past, while refusing to be intimidated by them. When the lectures were over we all chatted into the small hours at the conference centre bar, and I found myself challenged on several fronts. One young man was determined to show the features I’d identified as peculiarly classical can be found in other kinds of music. And yet he was willing to concede on one or two points. In all it was a heartening and invigorating weekend, which made me think about Bertrand Russell’s advice to anyone about to undertake a university education: don’t be afraid to challenge authority. He was only half-right. Of course students should challenge authority. But first they have to know what authority is, and how it can be honestly earned through intellectual distinction and moral strenuousness. It isn’t just a case of “the system” trying to pull the wool over the eyes of eager and idealistic youth.
Sang this way back in the day.
Elevated Night Club Hotel in Hong Kong by Urbanplunger
Russia is a pretty terrible place to be right now if you’re gay. They recently criminalized anything remotely gay, outlawed gay pride events, and banned adoptions by foreign gay couples. Russian nationalists are using social media to lure out gay teens and torture them on video. Gay people in Russia are being publicly physically attacked with no consequence; indeed, the police and government seem to be cheering it on. It’s difficult to watch such a large, developed nation treat people so terribly, and so Westerners are mulling over what we could possibly do to influence Russia to change its behavior. Inevitably such talk leads to calls for boycotts. It is the most logical choice. We have no real influence over Russia’s politics as citizens. The overwhelming political approval of anti-gay legislation in Russia indicates internal resistance is going to be extremely difficult and dangerous. In this situation, a refusal to contribute to Russia’s economy is probably the only way an average Westerner can respond. There was some chatter about trying to boycott the Sochi Olympics in 2014, but that seems extremely unlikely. The latest call is to boycott Russian vodkas, and gay bars across the country have started to come on board. One of the big targets is Stolichnaya Vodka, and here’s the boycott starts running into problems in this big world full of global corporations and international trade. The Stoli we drink here in the states is not made in Russia. It’s actually made in Latvia. It is actually a different vodka from what is sold within Russia. Russia seized the internal brands and renationalized them back in 2001. There is a big, nasty battle between Russia and the private Stolichnaya company and its owner, Yuri Scheffler. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that boycotters quite get it. Stoli sent out an open letter Thursday, declaring its support for gay rights, mentioning its history of activity within the gay community in America and other countries. But, Dan Savage posted, this isn’t enough. What are they doing about about the suffering of gays in Russia? Scheffler is one of Russia’s richest men! There’s a big Western bias in this argument, assuming that Russia’s corporatism is like America’s or Europe’s corporatism. Because Scheffler’s rich, he must have some sort of government influence! There must be something he can do! No doubt there are certainly similarities, but you simply can’t ignore Russia’s deeply nationalist streak and how closely it’s flirting with autocracy. It doesn’t take that much research to see how difficult a position Scheffler is in. Russia wants his company. This story from The Guardian from 2002 makes it very clear that Scheffler is no friend of Putin’s: In May, 200 masked police ransacked the SPI headquarters in Moscow. An SPI spokesman said: ‘These stormtroopers openly said they were assigned to destabilise our business rather than find any proof of our guilt.’ A few months later, the government issued a decree ‘to restore and protect the exclusive rights of the Russian Federation’ to vodka brands, and to punish ‘those guilty of harming the interests of the Russian Federation’. Scheffler himself is wanted for “questioning” for allegedly threatening the director of the parts of the Russian company that were renationalized. What’s sad about this effort is that if Russia succeeds in getting its hands back on Stoli, then a boycott actually makes sense. But the consequence will be that a powerful businessman who does support the gay community will lose his company. Boycotting Stoli now is a very bad idea. Scheffler is an ally who the gay and lesbian community needs to work with, not alienate. From a Western perspective it may be hard to realize that an incredibly rich person like Scheffler has the potential to be a victim of Russia’s authoritarian regime like its gay citizens or members of Pussy Riot, but it’s extremely important not to look at the nature of power and influence there the way we do here. Mandatory reading for anybody looking to understand Russia’s mindset these days: Cathy Young’s lengthy piece from the January issue of Reason magazine, “Putin Goes to Church.” The country is willing to let children rot in state facilities rather than be adopted by Americans. Keep that in mind.
Putin and the Russian government are the criminals, not Stoli. A Stoli boycott is barking up the wrong tree and harming those who have nothing to do with Russian policy.
EVERYBODY KNOWS McDonald’s has some pretty crazy items in other countries (Vegemite McMuffin FTW!), but they’ve also got some pretty tasty items that you’d be crazy not to dive right into — and that they’re crazy for not selling here, because people would undoubtedly go crazy for them. Crazy. Here are the 12 best.
1. Prime Rib Burger, Israel
Sure, they make you serve in the military, but at least you can fill up after your 60mi morning run with a lineup of charcoal-grilled burgers made outta prime rib and rib meat patties. This is the Big New York, topped with whatever the hell Royal Sauce is.
2. Texan Burger, South Africa
South Africa’s Texan Burger has barbecue sauce on it, like many burgers actually from Texas. Unlike burgers actually from Texas, they punch it up with a hashbrown, making it the perfect brunch burger. Or excuse to have a burger at brunch.
3. Samurai Pork Burger, Thailand
You won’t feel like committing seppuku after eating this Thailand specialty: the Samurai Pork Burger jammed with teriyaki-glazed pork.
4. Bacon Potato Pie, Japan
If you’re in Japan and don’t like seafood, that’s totally cool, because there’s this thing called bacon potato pie. Those brilliant bastards took a pie crust, stuffed it with nothing but bacon and mashed potatoes, and deep-fried the lot of it.
5. Pizza McPuff, India
In India, you can get a friggin’ pizza Hot Pocket at Mickey D’s. They call it a Pizza McPuff, and it’s easy to eat while driving around in your Tata.
6. Nacho Jr, Finland
The fact that this is on a Finnish menu and not an American one is bewildering. Take a burger, load it down with tortilla chips, salsa, and sour cream, call it the Nacho Jr, and boom: the perfect American Tex-Mex-style burger, made fresh daily in Helsinki.
7. McVicky Tzatziki, Germany
The German McVicky Tzatziki comes with a healthy dose of cheese cubes, onions, and of course gyro meat. These countries are getting pretty confusing all of a sudden.
8. Deep-Fried Balls of Camembert, Ireland
Leave it to Ireland to make the perfect fast food Guinness-accoutrement: deep-fried balls of Camembert.
9. Chicken Maharaja Mac, India
What do you do if you can’t decide between a McChicken and a Big Mac? Why, go to India, of course, where the Chicken Maharaja Mac is the best of both greasy worlds.
10. Black Diamond, Japan
Wait at least 45min before skiing expert-level slopes after eating Japan’s Black Diamond, which smothers Emmental cheese and grilled onions in an egg yolk and black truffle sauce.
11. Moutard Boeuf, France
You’ll never be able to pronounce it, so you might as well shove one in your face before you even try. It’s France’s Moutard Boeuf, for which they put a burger on a baguette, add a couple of potato cakes, top it with mustard, and call it done.
12. McKroket, Netherlands
Slotting somewhere below the decriminalization of soft drugs and above the sadly Oompa-Loompa-less Heineken brewery, this Dutch treat, called the McKroket, is essentially a beef ragout that’s breaded and fried, topped with a mustard sauce, and served in a bun. Pro Tip: Eat it with mayo-drenched Vlaamse frites.