Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Humor of Mitt Romney

Among the many brouhahas, big and small, that have popped up in this election cycle in the US, the most recent is a comment that Mitt Romney made before an adoring crowd in a suburb of Detroit, his hometown.

After taking to the stage, Romney flaunted his homeboy bona fides by reminding the crowd of supporters that he and his wife were both born in hospitals nearby. Then, riffing off the cheers, he went on to say, “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where we were born and raised.”

Well, isn’t that nice. Democrats pounced on Romney’s obvious attempt to distinguish himself from Barack Obama. They saw it as a sly nod to the Birthers, those conspiracy cultists who refuse to believe that Barack Obama was born in the USA, and hence isn't eligible to be president.

The Republican spin to Romney’s gaffe was that he was simply making a joke, a bit of humor that Democrats are too tight-assed to appreciate. 

If Romney was making a joke, it was a very inept joke. Then again, he’s not altogether known for his humor. And I think he suffers from poor impulse control when he’s making unscripted remarks. He should bear down whenever he feels a joke coming on. He should fight the urge really, really hard.

On the face of it, the remark was stupid anyway. Why bring up birth certificates to tout the fact that you grew up in the place where you grew up? I suspect that no one in Obama’s old neighborhood in Honolulu ever asked to see his birth certificate, either. Except maybe Donald Trump’s private investigators, if they ever existed at all.  

Even if Romney meant his birth certificate comment to be a joke, he should have realized it’s not a joke he can get away with.

Obama can do it (and I think he has done so), because he’s the one who’s been dogged by the ceaseless requests to produce proof of birth. In that case, the humor’s directed at himself. Romney making a birth certificate joke is like non-Mormon Obama saying, “Somehow, I’ve never been asked how many wives I actually have”.

By stressing that no one has ever doubted his citizenship, Romney does set himself apart from Obama, but not in a positive way. It draws attention to the kind of scrutiny and suspicion that Obama has been forced to endure over his legitimacy, but for which Romney – a white guy from a wealthy family – gets a free pass. It underlines his sense of entitlement.

To send the same message, he could have just as easily boasted to the crowd in Michigan: “I’ve never had trouble flagging down a taxi in the middle of the night.” or “I’ve never been stalked by a neighborhood watchman.”

Oh dear, I think I just played the race card there. No worries. It was only a joke. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Last Place

I’m one of those people who love lists. And I’m not alone, judging by how eager magazines are to entice readers with such rankings as “America’s twenty best companies to work for” or “Hollywood’s 10 shortest leading men”. I saw a recent listing that ranked my alma mater, the University of Georgia, as the nation’s fifth-best “party school”. What’s happened? I thought we used to be number one.

Lists are also a seemingly irresistible tool for the public relations industry, a sure way to generate some attention and spark some debate. When the ranking involves countries, or states, it can even incite some cheap patriotism.

A couple of years ago, Newsweek published a special issue on the world’s best countries, ranking them according such basic criteria as education, quality of life, health, etc. To no great surprise to those of us living in Helsinki, Finland was ranked number one overall. Well, okay, maybe to some surprise.

A map of dysfunction. The Failed State Index for 2010. Courtesy The Fund for Peace. 

The US, sadly, came in at number 11, sandwiched between Denmark and Germany, but much better than, say, Belgium (number 19), yay!

The comparison between Finland and the US was telling: Finland ranked first in education (the US 26th), fourth in quality of life (the US ninth), 17th in health (the US even worse at 26th), and fifth in “political environment” (US 14th). Only in the category of “economic dynamism” did the US (second place) outrank Finland (eighth).

While I imagine most Finns felt some quiet self-satisfaction with this outcome, the reaction among some Americans to NOT being declared number one in the world approached the apoplectic.

Newsweek was derided as a pathetic, leftist publication, not worth the one dollar (literally one dollar) that the company (yes, the entire company) was then being sold for. How times have changed, with the newsweekly now coming under fire from liberals for its most recent cover story, a controversial takedown of Barack Obama. I guess Newsweek is now trying to strike a balance.

Some critics of the “Best Country” list in 2010 cried that the methodology Newsweek used was flawed and biased. For others, it didn’t matter where the data came from or how Newsweek came to its conclusions – they simply “knew” America is the best country and that’s all there was to it. For many it was a classic case of shooting the messenger while ignoring the message. They refused to consider that the study’s picture of the US might actually point to some legitimate room for improvement.

As someone who grew up in America, I can understand this. We are taught that the US is the greatest country on earth, no question, and as most of us never come to know much about other countries, we have no reason to think otherwise.

I'm sure citizens of small countries like Finland also grow up with this kind of patriotic bias – just witness the fervor of Finnish hockey fans, especially when the opponent is Sweden. But being from a small country, Finns can’t help being exposed to other nations that might have it just as good, or even better, than they do. They are forced to realize that in some respects they are not necessary unique or even exceptional.

And don’t get me wrong. I love many things about America. It is a great country, and it's my country. It’s just not the only great country. And I don’t think that recognizing that fact makes me any less American.

Anyway, the Newsweek survey is just one of several similar that frequently place Finland near the top in important national qualities such as education or government transparency. In the future, I’ll use this blog to share some of these lists.

I’ll start off, however, with a ranking where Finland comes in last place, while the number one spot goes to Somalia.

The Failed State Index is published annually by the Fund for Peace, a US-based NGO focusing on developmental and security issues. To compile the index, FFP assigns to each country scores (1-10) in 12 categories related to political and economic stability and security. In other words, it attempts to measure how functional or dysfunctional a country is.

Of course, as with any such survey, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in the nitty gritty details of whether a country deserves a score of 2.0 or 2.3 in, for example, “Legitimacy of the State”.

Still, the relative ranking seems about right, and in any case I’m sure the main point of these metrics, as imperfect as they may be, is to focus attention on the states in most need of help. It is indeed a somber list, with the world's most blighted nations prominent at the top.

Somalia, with a total of 114.9 points, comes closest to a perfect (in a perverse sort of way) score of 120, an indication of the depth of misery that that failed country’s people are forced to endure. Finland, in contrast, scores only 20, a slightly worse result than last year (19.7), when it also came in last place.

The list is another reminder that some of us are lucky enough to live in the least dysfunctional countries in the world. At the same time, you can't ignore the plight of those desperate nations at the top of the list, reminding us here in Finland to not be too smug about our own good fortune.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Formidable Formica

Finland rightly has a reputation for great northern scenery and nature, including some abundant wildlife.

Most people from the temperate world – if they ever have cause to think about it at all – probably imagine Finland to be a land of moose, bears, and reindeer. They might also think of swans and other waterfowl. All of that is true, of course. If forced to consider insects, some people might recall hearing rumors that here be monster mosquitoes. Very true, indeed.

However, there is one very prominent form of six-legged wildlife that most people (myself included, before I came here) would never have associated with this Nordic landscape.

A Finnish anthill, somewhere in Savo.

Ants are everywhere in Finland. That’s no great surprise, since there is no place on earth without ants. (Well, except Antarctica, ironic when you consider that continent’s name. It's  the “arctica” of ants, isn't it?)

What is surprising in the case of Finland is how conspicuous ants are. In subtropical Georgia, you of course see ants scurrying over the ground almost anywhere you want to look. But you don’t normally pay attention to their homes, usually just marked by a sprinkling of dirt surrounding a tiny hole in the ground. They are easy to overlook, at least in North Georgia. In Finland, that is not a problem.

Ant nests are huge here. They can easily be a meter (three feet) tall, rising out of the green forest floor like a brown pyramid covered in thousands of energetic worker ants.

The sheer size of Finnish ant colonies, teeming with hundreds of thousands of the little buggers, means its best to give them a wide berth. Except that some Finns – living up to a certain national character that can only be described as quirky (some might say masochistic) –  make a point of doing just the opposite.

Leaf-cutting ants. Not found in Finland.
Among one of the strangest of strange Finnish “sports” (and there are some strange ones), “anthill sitting” is one whose appeal is probably lost on anyone who is not a Finn (and, to be honest, most Finns as well).

The goal of this contest is to see who can sit the longest on top of an angry nest of ants. Oh, yes, and to give the ants a sporting chance (they are, after all, pretty small), the human contestants do this in the buff. I think alcohol is often involved. I know that would have to be the case for me to take part.

Needless to say, there are better ways to appreciate ants. I once worked for a botanist at the University of Georgia who studied leaf-cutting ants in South America. These ants are famous for snipping off bits of leaves, which they carry back to their nests to use as fertilizer for their actual foodstuff, fungus. It is basically a kind of farming.

I always hoped my boss would need me to join one of his expeditions to the Amazon, but it never happened. I did eventually get to see leafcutters in action, however, when my four-year-old son and I visited the Parque Natural Metropolitano, a patch of tropical forest in Panama City, Panama.

On a Finland-related note: the Parque Metropolitano is used as a study site by the nearby US Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which employs a large construction crane to access the 30-meter-high (90-foot) forest canopy. The crane was, I believe, provided by a well-known Finnish machine company and paid for, in part, by the Finnish government. A surprising reminder of Suomi in the jungle.

Young explorer in Panama.

There, under that tropical canopy, I experienced maybe my only true David Attenborough moment when we happened upon a trail of leaf cutting ants marching in a straight line over the forest floor. As we followed this tiny procession of hundreds of ants, each one holding a slice of green leaf, the line joined with another line of ants, coming from a different direction and all carrying, instead of leaves, some sort of red berries. The converged lines of leaf- and berry-carriers continued together, moving relentlessly toward their distant nest. It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in the woods.

Still, as we watched this miniature parade, it somehow didn’t occur to me to follow them to their nest and sit on it. Guess I’m not Finnish enough. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Olympics

The Olympic Games in London are over, and so is our two-week stretch of staying up late every night to watch the competitions. Finland ended the Games with three medals, about as expected. The US, needless to say, did much better (104 medals), with some spectacular wins.

Paavo Nurmi lighting the Olympic fame
in Helsinki, 1952.
It’s a shame Finland didn’t do better. Track and field athletics have historically been a big deal here. Finland still has the all-time record in the number of medals awarded. On a per capita basis, that is. Since the beginning of the modern Games, Finland has won a total of 300 medals (make that 303 now) one for every 18,000 or so inhabitants, beating out second-place Sweden (sweet) to, well, take the gold in medal winning itself.

No one was more responsible for this tradition than the legendary runner Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” who won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in the 1920s. More recently, Lasse Virén won four golds in the 1970s, most famously in Munich, where he fell badly on the 12th lap of the 10,000 meters race and was still able to overtake the pack to win with a world-record-breaking time.  

This past glory belies the fact that Finland’s track and field prowess has been in decline for some time. The medals this time came mostly from aquatic sports, and I don’t mean swimming. Tuuli Petäjä won the first, a silver in women’s windsurfing, which is especially fitting since her name “Tuuli” means “wind”. How could she not get a medal?

(On a political note, windsurfing is considered an elitist sport in the US, or at least it seemed so when Democratic presidential candidate, avid windsurfer, and really rich guy John Kerry was lambasted by his opponents for engaging in a sport so far removed from the concerns of the common man. At the time, windsurfing was to John Kerry, as dressage is to Mitt Romney today.)

Finland’s other medals (both bronze) came from women’s sailing and men’s javelin. Finland has often been strong in javelin, with stars from the 1980s still household names today. This time there were three Finnish javelin throwers among the 12 finalist. Not bad. In sailing, Finland’s hopes of going for the gold were dashed when too little wind cut short the second-round race against Australia, leaving the three-woman crew to use their Finnish seamanship to take the bronze from the Russians.

The Töölö Rowing Stadium.
At the very beginning of the Games, a few hours before the opening ceremony in London, I went kayaking in particularly glorious Finnish summer weather.

Heading southwest from my kayak club’s boathouse, I thought how apt it was to be paddling past a white structure perched on the shoreline a couple hundred meters to the east. The high, open pavilion sheltering a small grandstand off my port side was the Töölö Rowing Stadium.

These exact waters in Taivallahti bay were the venue for the Olympic canoeing competition in 1952, when Helsinki hosted the Summer Games, an Olympics seeped in more history than most.

Helsinki’s route to hosting the Games was a torturous one. The Finnish capital had come in second place in the completion to hold the 1940 Summer Games, losing out only to Tokyo, Japan. (Talk about some sinister zeitgeist there – the Games, hosted by Nazi Germany in 1936, were to be held next in bellicose imperial Japan.) However, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, besides being a harbinger of the wider world war to come, ignited a global boycott against holding the Games in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee then awarded the 1940 Olympics to runner-up Helsinki.

Of course, the geopolitical situation only got worse. Germany invaded Poland, the USSR invaded Finland, world war broke out, and javelin and discus throwing were the furthest things from anyone’s mind. The Games were suspended infinitely. Helsinki would have to wait until 1952 to be selected as host again.

By that time, the athletes who gathered in Helsinki reflected the new world order of the Cold War. Helsinki marked the Olympic debut of not only the Soviet Union, but also Israel and (briefly) the People’s Republic of China. (After that fleeting appearance, Communist China would not participate again until 1984.)

The Helsinki Games, as all Olympics do, also left numerous landmarks around the city. Some are the all-too-common Olympic “white elephants”, like the rowing stadium in Taivallahti, which I’ve seen being used only once, for some kind of outdoor choir practice. 

The 72-meter art deco tower at
Helsinki's Olympic Stadium.
That said, quite a few venues from the 1952 Games are still in use today, most notably the 41,000-seat Olympic Stadium and the nearby open-air swimming center. The stadium is often employed as a concert venue, most recently last Sunday for Madonna. Based on all the disappointing comments I’ve heard about the show, it was not the proudest moment in the stadium’s history.

Recently, I traveled the 100 miles to Tampere to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform in that city’s Ratina soccer stadium. To the side of the massive stage where Flea gyrated in a manner worthy of any gymnast, I couldn’t help notice that a lofty cauldron stood above a wall emblazoned with a small set of Olympic rings, reminders of the football preliminaries held here in 1952. In one of these, Italy had beaten the US, 
8-0. Ouch.

Soccer is still far from America’s strong suit when it comes to the Olympics (the US team didn’t even make it to Games this time around). Luckily, we have athletes like Michael “the Flying Fish” Phelps, the biggest medal winner of all time, to make up for such minor deficiencies. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Stalin's Kudzu

Being from the southern US, I am all too familiar with a sight you often see traveling through Dixie – places where a single type of vegetation forms a thick, tangled carpet of green that covers not only acres and acres of land but also living trees, abandoned cars, derelict houses, you name it, anything that doesn’t move. I’m talking, of course, about kudzu.

Kudzu is a fast-growing vine native to southern Japan and parts of China and Korea. It was introduced to the US over a century ago and was adopted as a cure for soil erosion because it quickly takes root in land denuded of other vegetation. In that role, it succeeded. But it didn’t stop there. It just kept growing.

Kudzu overtaking trees near Atlanta.
It’s not an easy plant to kill, or harvest (supposedly, it does have some economic uses.) At least goats will eat it. I recall that in my hometown in Georgia, someone used these four-legged mowing machines to clear a kudzu-covered hillside. Usually, though, it seems kudzu resists all efforts to eradicate it. Every year, it envelops 150,000 additional acres (61,000 hectares) of US landscape, leading to the joke that it’s the “vine that ate the South”.

Exotic species, like kudzu, which thrive a little too well in new habitats pose huge problems, not only for humans, but also especially for native species they displace or feed on.

Currently, US biologists are dealing with the spread of Africanized bees (“killer bees”) in the southeast, an extremely aggressive fish, Asian carp, in the Mississippi watershed (potentially invading the Great Lakes), and even a proliferation of Burmese pythons (yikes!) in southern Florida marshlands, where they are decimating local wildlife.

Finland, too, has its share of exotic species. (However, with the Finnish winters, there’s no threat that Burmese pythons will ever get a foothold here.) Some of these invading species would hardly be even considered a nuisance, let alone noxious.

This summer, on a drive to Savo in eastern Finland we noticed that the exotic plant Lupinus polyphyllus was growing more abundantly along the roadside and spreading further north than ever before. This foreign species is otherwise known as “garden lupine”, a very attractive “wildflower” I seem to recall from road trips in Wyoming and Colorado. It doesn’t belong in Finland, though as invasive weeds go, it’s certainly not the most objectionable.  

Lupines in Alaska.
That’s not true for another weed I came to know this summer. Giant Hogweed (Heracleum genus) lives up to its disagreeable name. A native of the Caucasus Mountains, it grows up to four meters or more in height in Finland and spreads voraciously, easily crowding out native plants. It’s also bad news for humans. Contact with this toxic plant causes blisters on the skin that can result in permanent scars. A tiny amount of its sap in the eyes can cause blindness. It is one nasty, nasty member of the plant kingdom.

A colony of Giant Hogweed has established itself in an abandoned field downstream from my in-laws’ summer place in Savo. A local farmer has tried to destroy the particular outbreak of this weed from hell, but its growth seems hardly abated.

Giant Hogweed has been spreading to eastern Finland in recent years from Russia, where the offensive weed has thrived for decades. In fact, it was once actively cultivated there.

The story goes that Stalin, a native of Soviet Georgia, like Giant Hogweed itself, had seen in the monstrous weed great potential as a source of feed for collectivist cattle. It was to be the Soviet answer to a much better silage crop that wasn’t well suited to Mother Russia, but grows so abundantly in the imperialist fields of Iowa, namely maize (corn).

Giant Hogweed encroaching on an abandoned sauna in Savo.
Stalin reportedly decreed that Hogweed was to be introduced to northwest Russia in 1947, and it did produce a lot of plant material for livestock, just as Uncle Joe had hoped. But it also left a foul taste in the milk and meat of the cattle that ate it. That, and the small matter of its extreme toxicity to humans, doomed it as a crop of any use. Unfortunately, its failure as a crop didn’t doom it to oblivion. It only continued to spread, as it does today.

With some irony, Russians have come to call this almost indestructible plant “Stalin’s Revenge”. In light of my southern heritage, I can only think of it as “Stalin’s Kudzu”. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Tiny Seeds of Summer

In the last week or so, another little sign of seasonal change has been in the air. Literally. It’s hard to miss the flecks of brown stuff floating on the breeze and filtering in through our open windows to settle on everything from desktops to bedspreads. Outside it sometimes looks like a barely visible snowstorm.

These tiny, winged bits of flotsam are birch-tree seeds, the result of this spring’s prolific output of pollen.

Since they don’t affect anyone’s nose, throat or lungs, birch seeds are not much of a topic of conversation. As you could imagine. I usually don’t give them much thought, except this year, which is seeing a “crop” much bigger (in a relative sense) than normal.

Lately, they are hard to miss, as tiny as they are. Besides finding these flea-sized seeds sprinkled around the house, I see them littering walking paths and accumulating along sidewalks, where even miniature “seed drifts” sometimes form.

The fact that there’s an exceptional amount of these tiny flakes of biomass all around us only hammers home a fact no one here could escape anyway – summer, as it always does, is coming to an end. 

Birch seeds.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Another acceptable loss?

Sixteen days. That’s how much time has elapsed between the mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, which left 12 moviegoers dead, and the next sensational mass shooting, on Sunday, in which at least six worshipers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin were murdered by someone whose motives at this point are unclear. Sixteen days.

If I ever doubted that the numerous and periodic loss of life due to gunfire is a loss America is willing to accept, those doubts vanished after the Aurora shooting.

On the Internet and in the media, there was a stunning rush by supporters of America’s gun culture who – while offering sympathy and prayers for the innocent victims in Aurora – pleaded that under no circumstances should the national tragedy be sullied by bringing up anything as uncouth as the idea of restricting, in any way, the sale of guns used in such killing sprees.

Well, it wasn’t so much that they “pleaded” to keep the topic of gun control out of public discourse; the tone was more “demanding”, as if daring anyone to even propose a public debate on the issue.

I started to wonder:  if a fresh rampage by a gun-toting madman every year or six months isn’t shocking or alarming enough to spark a real debate about gun control, then how often do Americans have to endure such carnage before they feel incensed enough to bring up the subject in polite company?

There must be a frequency and scale of gun deaths at which public opinion finally turns vigorously against the gun lobby. What would be that tipping point be? 

Would it take an Aurora-scale massacre happening every month or so to enrage the public enough to consider some restrictions on guns and embolden US politicians enough to stand up to the NRA? Or would it require rampages on a weekly basis? Twice weekly, even?

I certainly hope it would never take such appallingly high body counts to force Americans do more than simply shrug their shoulders at the news of another shooting. The way things are going though, I’m not overly optimism.

In Finland, following shootings at two schools and a shopping center, laws concerning handguns were tightened. Effective at the beginning of the year, anyone planning to buy a handgun must show that they are an active member of a shooting club and may also need to provide a certificate of mental health. Under these requirements, the murderer in Aurora could not have legally obtained his guns.

Okay, I know some will say you can’t compare countries like Finland and the US. Finland doesn’t have the levels of crime that the US has. Finns don’t have Americans’ huge appetite for narcotics, and consequently isn’t such fertile ground for large organized criminal gangs. Also, Finns don’t generally fear their own duly elected politicians and don’t feel the need to defend themselves against the eventual apocalyptic subjugation by government that apparently prompts some (maybe many) American gun owners to stockpile enough weapons and ammo to kill entire platoons.

When it comes to the issue of guns, you could say that Finns live in a normal, reasonable and peaceful world. Sometimes, I wonder where Americans live.