Thursday, January 31, 2008

The children of Terezin...

I will finish up posting on Terezin today with our visit to the Ghetto Museum.

The Ghetto Museum in Terezin is about a 1/2 mile from the Small Fortess. While nearly all of the buildings within the walls of the old town (the Large Fortess) are from the time of the Jewish Ghetto (late 1941 to May 1945) only one building serves as the museum.

There were a couple of particularly interesting items. First, there is a room with the names of the thousands who perished in the ghetto, which are listed in alphabetical order. Surprisingly, there are two Tischler - Manfred and Ernesta Tischler. I and my cousin Rick have been trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to follow our Tischler line back into Europe. Who knows if Manfred and Ernesta are some long lost relatives.

A stairway in the Ghetto Museum has copies of dozens of drawings from the children of Terezin.
Also, there was a room with dozens of pictures made by the children of Terezin. Thousands of drawings from the children were hidden and found after the war. They were quite moving. Each drawing had the name of the child who created it and thier fate. Most of the children ended up at Auschwitz where they died. Noah went through the drawings looking for the ones that were by children who survived the war. He would call to us when he found one and was happy. I guess it was his way of dealing with magnitude of the suffering of the kids (many his age). Yes, some did survive.

One of the drawings of life in the ghetto.

Arriving at the ghetto.



Here is a book I think I have ordered from Amazon. It's Fireflies in the dark: the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Terezin by Susan Goldman Rubin.
From a review of the book: Although this book has the look of a picture book for younger children, the messages contained within are for older readers. Artist Dicker-Brandeis ran secret art classes for children at the Terezin Concentration Camp. She and nearly all of her pupils perished, but 5000 of the drawings and paintings were discovered hidden in a suitcase. Many of those works are found in this book.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More on Terezin...

From the web site Jewish Virtual Library:

Hitler, the world was to be told, had built a city for the Jews, to protect them from the vagaries and stresses of the war. A film was made to show this mythic, idyllic city to which his henchmen were taking the Jews from the Czech Lands and eight other countries. Notable musicians, writers, artists, and leaders were sent there for "safer" keeping than was to be afforded elsewhere in Hitler's quest to stave off any uprisings or objections around the so-called civilized world. This ruse worked for a very long time, to the great detriment of the nearly two hundred thousand men, women and children who passed through its gates as a way station to the East and probable death.

The Red Cross was allowed to visit Terezin once. The village of Terezin was spruced up for the occasion. Certain inmates were dressed up and told to stand at strategic places along the specially designated route through Terezin. Shop windows along that carefully guarded path were filled with goods for the day. One young mother remembers seeing the bakery window and shelves suddenly filled with baked goods the inmates had never seen during their time at Terezin. Even the candy shop window overflowed with bon bons creating a fantastic illusion she would never forget.

When the Red Cross representative appeared before this young mother, she remembers being asked how it was to live in Terezin during those days. Her reply implored the questioner to look around. Be sure and look around, as she herself rolled her own widely opened eyes around in an exaggerated manner. The Red Cross reported dryly that while war time conditions made all life difficult, life at Terezin was acceptable given all of the pressures. The Red Cross concluded that the Jews were being treated all right.

There were so many musicians in Terezin, there could have been two full symphony orchestras performing simultaneously daily. In addition, there were a number of chamber orchestras playing at various times. A number of distinguished composers created works at Terezin including Brundibar or the Bumble Bee, a children's operetta and a number of chamber compositions which only now are being resurrected and played in Europe and the United States.

This was not a death camp, by the usual definition. There is no way to compare Terezin to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Treblinka or any of the other death camps where hundreds of thousands were gassed or murdered in other ways each year. Terezin, by comparison was a place to which people would apply so as to avoid a worse fate.

Leskley painting "Beautified and Phony - Red Cross Inspection"
Eli Leskley's Ghetto Diary (from the University of Minnesota Holocaust and Genocide Studies web site)

Born in 1911, Leskley painted 70 satiric watercolors while he was interned in Terezin, the show camp and ghetto established by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. He hid them, retrieved them after the war and recreated each one. The paintings are available in sets of 15 or the complete collection of 40. Many of the originals were damaged. Part of those paintings were saved and mounted. Immediately after the war, Leskley repainted all the images to provide a satiric and poignant view of the camp at Theresienstadt.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Terezin

On Saturday we made the 45 minute drive north of Prague to Terezin. Terezin is most notable for its role in World War II, as the location of a primary Jewish ghetto and for the political prison also there.

The Jewish cemetary just outside the small fortress.

A fort named Terezin, or Theresienstadt in German, was built by the Hapsburgs in the 1780s to protect against the Prussians to the north. During WWI it was used to house prisoners of war.

From Wikipedia:
The Small Fortress was part of the fortification on left side of river Ohře. Since 1940, the Gestapo used it as a prison (the largest one in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia). It was separate and unrelated to the Jewish ghetto in the main fortress on the river's right side. Around 90,000 people arrived there and were usually sent to a concentration camp later. 2,600 people were executed, starved, or succumbed to disease there. A possible 1,100 children survived of the 15,000 sent there.

The 1st gate of the small fortress with the slogan "Work will set you free". Most of those who died here were worked to death as slave laborers.

Noah stands in the hallway of the building that housed the more than 20 cells for solitary confinement. Conditions here were horrendously bad. Only one of these cells was not used by the Nazis during WWII - Cell #1 had housed Gavrilo Princip, the Serb who assassinated Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria and his wife, starting the First World War, and he died here of tuberculosis in 1918. I was able to enter the cell - it was an interesting feeling.

The shower room of the Small Fortress. Noah asked if this is where the Jews "got acid" meaning the poison gas. But Terezin was not an extermination camp. The Terezin ghetto, like all of the Jewish ghettos, was a place to accumulate Jews before deportation to the East for extermination in places like Auschwitz. Terezin was the western most of the Jewish ghettos.

During WWII, the Gestapo used Terezín, better known by the German name Theresienstadt, as a ghetto, concentrating Jews from Czechoslovakia, as well as many from Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Denmark. Though it was not an extermination camp, of the over 150,000 Jews who arrived there, about 33,000 died in the ghetto itself, mostly because of the appalling conditions arising out of extreme population density. About 88,000 inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. At the end of the war there were 17,247 survivors.

Part of the fortification (Small Fortress) served as the largest Gestapo prison in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, separated from the ghetto. Around 90,000 people went through it, and 2,600 of those died there.

It was liberated on May 9th, 1945 by the Soviet Army.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Visit to the Prague Starbucks...


This morning Kathy and I dropped Noah off at Sunday school at 9:45 and then headed over to the first Starbucks in Prague just across the way which opened on Tuesday. We usually either go for a walk or stop somewhere for coffee so today we thought we would have our coffee at the new Starbucks.

Lots of other Sunday school parents had the same idea and there ended up being about 10 of us there.

The experience was OK, but then I don't really understand all the fuss over Starbucks. There were only a couple of people ahead of us in line and within a minute or two we were able to place our order - a tall (i.e. small) caramel machiatto for Kathy and a grande (i.e. medium) white mocha cafe for me. The total was 200 Crowns, or about $12. That seems a bit pricey, but before the recent fall of the dollar that same 200 Crowns would only have been about $9 (better, but still pricey).

The service at the counter was good and the coffee was prepared quickly. We retired to the main room, which was appointed similar to all the others. Soft jazz was playing on the sound system. The wall color was a warm peachy-yellow-orange.

As for the coffee itself, I thought it was just OK. It didn't seem noticeably different from what we get at Coffee Heaven, a local high end coffee chain in Prague (where the two coffees we ordered would probably cost 20% less).

The view is probably better than most Starbucks. The location is in a corner of the building, so there are windows on two sides.

The clientele seemed to be mostly tourists and expats with a few local Czechs thrown in. I expect that is what they are shooting for, but of course the more Czechs the better.

All in all I was underwhelmed, but on the other hand it is nice to have a place better than McDonalds to get a taste of home.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

My 2007 taxes are done!...


I got my W-2 delivered on Thursday and it only took about an hour using the on-line version of TurboTax. I have filed on-line this way for about seven years, but this year was particularly easy for a variety of reasons.

First, 2007 was the first year that we were in Prague for the entire calendar year - we moved here in August of 2006. The 2006 taxes were more complicated because of the time split between Minnesota and Prague. But 2007 was easy.

Because we were overseas for all of 2007 there was no state tax to file - we are not residents of any state. That cut the paperwork by almost half (although state taxes are generally less involved than federal).

The biggest reason for the time saving, though, was that I used the standard deduction. Without a house (which we sold last February) there is not much to itemize, so it was cost effective - and much quicker - to use the standard deduction of $10,700. A lot of time is saved when you don't have to pull together donation receipts and look up how much you spent on your car tabs.

Because we are expats working overseas there is a foreign income exclusion. That means that when I calculate my gross income I then get to subtract the amount of the foreign income exclusion. For 2007 that exclusion is $85,700. That doesn't leave a lot left - and then you take away the standard deduction.

Anyway, I don't think I have been done this quickly with taxes since, well, when I was still in school. This will, of course, all change whenever we move back but for now I'm lovin' it.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

First Starbucks in Prague opens...

I know that I have been spending a lot of time on the first Starbucks to open in Prague, and I'm not really sure why. I have been to Starbucks, but prefer Caribou, and in any event don't spend a lot of time in coffee shops. I usually have a single cup of coffee at home each day and that is pretty much it. The arrival of Starbucks in Prague - the first store opened yesterday - is more of a cultural than culinary event. It reflects the complete dominance of American popular culture through the world. (Now if we could only get Taco Bell to open in Prague I would be the first in line on opening day).

Czechs by nature do not consume mass quantities of coffee from half-litre sized cups. To the typical Czech, coffee is something that is served after a meal and comes in a very small cup (think espresso) with perhaps a little cookie. That's it. For Starbucks to be successful beyond the tourists and foreign workers the culture of why and when Czechs drink coffee will have to change.

Obviously, Starbucks has moved into other countries with the same local perception of coffee, and has succeeded. So I have little doubt that 5 years from now Czechs will view coffee as Americans do.

Starbucks was quite clever, in my opinion, to take a location that long ago served as a cafe/coffeehouse for young writers and wresting it from a popular restaurant (Square, on Malostranka namesti as I have previously posted). I am sure it was expensive to do, but it is a way to get Czechs to mentally associate Starbucks with their own heritage

Here is a report from yesterday's Financial News:

“Starbucks takes great pride in announcing it has carefully and thoughtfully rehabilitated the Palác Grömlingovský retail location and returned it to its historic use as a coffeehouse and gathering place for the local community,” said Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks Europe, Middle East, and Africa. “We are thrilled to welcome the people of Prague back to the Palác Grömlingovský to enjoy Starbucks finest coffees in the location they have known and loved for years.”

“Many steps have been taken to ensure that the physical space was restored respecting its original architectural features,” said Jakub Strestik, operations director for Starbucks Czech Republic. The 270 square meter location was originally established as a coffeehouse in 1874 and it remained a destination for local literati, scholars and neighbors for decades. The renovation includes restoration of the original flooring, use of recommended paint color palettes, maintenance of all existing windows, and design and installation of subdued exterior signage in keeping with the ambience of the town square. Starbucks will also introduce programming at this store that will allow customers to enjoy include book readings, book releases, and other arts and literature related events.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A bet that the dollar will go up...


This morning I made a bet with a guy here at work that the US dollar would go up - reaching 19.00 crowns to the dollar by 01 March and 20.00 crwons to the dollar by 01 June. Of course, then the Fed went and cut the key rate that banks charge each other overnight by 75 points, from 4.25% to 3.5%. This has weakened the dollar even more and it currently sits at about 18.00, down from about 18.25 before the announcement. However, I stand by my analysis from yesterday and believe that the dollar will be "saved" by a worldwide (and possibly deep) recession.

Yesterday I mentioned the difference between the "old conventioanl wisdom" - that the rest of the world is tied at the hip to the US economy - and the "new conventional wisdom" that others, like the EU, had disengaged themselves from the US sufficiently that a recession in the US would not doom them.

Here is the EU in all of its "new conventional wisdom" glory. I call this an example of whistling past the graveyard. From the Associated Press:

The EU's economy chief on Tuesday blamed the United States' huge trade deficit for plunging shares on world stock exchanges, saying Europe was in a very different state and could weather the storm despite slowing growth.

"It's obvious that we are living in an uncertain period," he told reporters after EU finance ministers met in Brussels. Fears of a U.S. recession -- not a larger global slowdown -- were behind falling equity markets, he said, stressing that Europe was not facing similar problems.


I hope I don't lose this bet - it's for a beer!

Monday, January 21, 2008

I forgot...


Since it's Martin Luther King day in the States there will be no markets open today. That makes it even more interesting since we will have another session in Europe tomorrow before the US markets finally open. I predict a second day of European gloom and doom.

Has the US Dollar bottomed out?...


I know, I know...I said that I would report on the US dollar once a month, sometime during the first week of each month. However, things seem to be changing quickly so I thought I'd better give my two cents worth. First, a disclaimer...In case you didn't know, and most of you should, I am no economist. I took a class of Macro as part of my MBA program, and I didn't like it. And I make no claim to any particular expertise in the subject.

As I write this (Monday, 21 JAN at 4:30 PM Prague time) European markets are down big time - about 5.6%. That would be equivalent to a drop in the Dow today of 780 points. Pretty serious stuff. It is likely that the Dow will have another down day, but I don't think it will be down anywhere close to 5%.

It appears that Europe is catching the sub-prime flu that the US has been suffering from for the past few months. One reason that the dollar has been hit so hard is that fear of recession in the US has caused the Fed to drop interest rates to spur activity. It also has the benefit of making variable mortgages a lit more affordable for those who got them and watched as the rates jumped up over the last year or two.

Kathy and I had a variable rate home equity loan on our house back in Minnesota. It was a sizable loan (we did a LOT of work on the house) and the monthly payment had started going up regularly - and we felt it. Fortunately, the home equity loan was paid off when we sold our house almost a year ago. But others were not as fortunate, and unexpectedly higher payments has both raised foreclosures and bankruptcies and left less money to spend for those who haven't actually lose their homes.

In Europe, on the other hand, inflation has been a problem - in the Czech Republic inflation was over 5% in 2007 - so the central banks have been raising rates to dampen demand to keep inflation in line. While a slow down, or full fledged recession, is a distinct possibility in the US, it seemed less so in Europe and elsewhere. The old conventional wisdom was that as the US economy went so went the rest of the world. The new conventional wisdom is that the influence of the US economy is less pronounced than before and that it won't drag others with it.

In my opinion, the new conventional wisdom is wrong and a worldwide recession is possible, even likely since a recession is likely in the US. Europe has a housing bubble similar to what existed in the US and with the big drop in the markets here today we may be seeing the initial leak in the bubble.

So, what will happen to the dollar? It has trended down significantly to the Czech koruna recently. It spiked upward to about 18.40 from a low of 17.65 in December before falling back, and is back up to about 18.15 now. My prediction is that the dollar will trend upwards for the foreseeable future. European central banks will have to revisit rate increases and may even have to cut rates if a recession is perceived to be on the horizon. Interest rates should be heading down on both sides of the Atlantic so the dollar shouldn't get worse.

The price of oil has also dropped dramatically in the past week, from a high at $100 per barrel down to $88 today. Expect that price to continue dropping as the spectre of a recession, with lower demand, looms.

A world wide recession is a steep price to pay for a stronger dollar compared to the koruna. My rent and groceries may well be a bit cheaper but jobs will be harder to find as demand drops and the layoffs start.

I hope I'm wrong about the recession, but I feel strongly that the dollar will get stronger versus the Euro and other European currencies during the rest of 2008. I will report again as usual during the first week of February.

The International Food Fair at ISP...

Saturday evening was the annual food fair at the International School of Prague. This is a fundraiser for the school that gives everyone the opportunity to sample foods from many of the scores of countries represented by the students and their families. It is an extremely popular event and the school's cafeteria and gym were crammed with tables of food and lots and lots of people. A report form the school today said that over 1200 people attended!
For the kids, after they got their fill of all of the food, there were special movies - Shrek the Third and Night at the Museum. The whole evening was pretty interesting and fun.

The Afghanistan table (and my co-worker Akhbar)

Wooden shoes and great food from Holland.

The pastries and music at the French table drew big crowds.

The table of Poland.

Here's Sweden.

And the Ukraine.

Last but not least, here is the table of the USA. The featured foods here were chili (mild, medium, spicy and vegetarian), brownies (which Kathy made) and chocolate chip cookies.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Sunday trip to church...

E very Sunday (well, almost every Sunday) we drive from our village of Horomerice to the area of Dejvicka where we can either take the metro or a tram to the church of St. Thomas just off of Maolstranska namesti. Because the timeing is right we usually take a tram - a #20 tram comes at 0930 and gets us to church just in time for the start of Sunday school at 0945. On weekends the metro runs only about every 7-8 minutes so if we just miss one at Dejvicka it would mean we would be late.

Passing another tram on the way into the city.

Prague public transportation relies on the honor system. Human nature being what it is, ticket inspectors are used to perform spot checks on random metros, trams and buses. Today there was an inspector on the tram, and while we all had tickets (the last ting we want is unwanted contact with the police) a young check couple sitting behind us did not - and the inspector wrote them out a ticket. I believe that the fine is about $25.

Here is where we get off - Malostranska namesti. On the right is where the new Starbucks is going. We hear that it will open this Tuesday.

Here is the imposing door to St. Thomas' church. It is a very beautiful Church and I will post more about it in the near future.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Blog facts and figures...


Here are some tidbits regarding the blog:

1) I have decided to pay the $5 per month to see where the visitors to this site come from. In less than 30 days I have racked up visits from 50 countries and I love to check each day and see if there are new countries to add to the list. Who knows how many other countries would be on the list if I had access to this service from the time I started the blog last April.

2) Yesterday I had first time visits from Lebanon, Yemen and Brunei! If you had asked me to list the order in which countries would visit, I am pretty sure that I would have put Brunei last (with Yemen second from the bottom and Lebanon third from the bottom).

3) Still no hits from places like Russia and much of eastern Europe.

4) Traffic has increased greatly over the past few weeks. The site averaged 20 hits per day the first week of January, 30 per day the second week, and is at 36 per day so far this week.

5) Most traffic comes from within blogger.com, which means that other bloggers are checking out this site.

6) Google brings about 30% of the blog traffic. I can see what words were used to search Google that led them here. I can also check that search and see where my blog is listed in the search - sometimes it is the number one site listed.

7) Repeat visitors represent only about 25-30% of the hits to the blog. That surprises me as I thought most of the traffic would be repeats from family and friends with only a few others who would stumble upon it occassionally.

8) There are a few posts that are driving traffic to the blog. Here are some of the most referred:
* Our visit to the Vatican at Christmas caused a lot of people to find and visit this site. I assume that they would like to also visit the Vatican at Christmas and are looking for information.
* Posts on the falling dollar are a big generator of visitors.
* The recent posts on Starbucks coming to Prague have generated quite a few hits, mostly from Europe.
* My post on the bombing of my former office in Saudi Arabia in 1995 has brought several people to this site.
* The post on St. Mukulas, a Christmas tradition here in the Czech Republic, brought in quite a bit of traffic.

Thanks to all who visit. It's fun for me to do and is giving me some practice at writing. My new year's resolution was to start that book that I have been putting off for years. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Wall Street Journal article on RFE/RL...

I have just found out that there was a big Wall Sreet Journal article on RFE/RL and our president, Jeff Gedmin, on Saturday, December 28th. I was off work that week (in Rome with the family) so I didn't get my copy of the weekend Journal. So although it's more than two weeks later I have decided to post the article here. It is a very good article and, I think, portrays the company and Gedmin in a positive light. Here it is.

A Voice for Freedom
U.S.-backed broadcasts remain the ultimate in "soft power."
by MATTHEW KAMINSKI
Saturday, December 29, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST

PRAGUE--Can radio change the world? It used to. On the walls at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty here hang pictures of Solidarity rallies in Poland and a smiling Vaclav Havel. The message isn't subtle, or inaccurate: This legendary U.S.-funded broadcaster helped win the Cold War.

The glory days are past at RFE/RL, and for American public diplomacy as a whole. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when history ended and freedom triumphed (or so it seemed), Munich-based RFE/RL landed on the chopping block. It was saved, on a threadbare budget, partly thanks to then Czech President Havel. In gratitude, he offered cheaper digs in a communist-era eyesore here in Prague that previously housed the Czechoslovak Parliament. Yet in the public mind, the station founded in 1950 by the likes of George Kennan and John Foster Dulles might as well be gone.

"We're trying to revive it," says Jeffrey Gedmin, the broadcaster's new president. Doing that, and making the station a valued tool of U.S. foreign policy again, won't be easy.

The neoconservative expert on Germany, and longtime denizen of Washington's think-tank world, makes an energetic pitch. In his nine months in office, Mr. Gedmin has told anyone who'll listen that government-funded, robust "surrogate broadcasting"--a stand-in where the real thing is missing--matters as much as ever. "Massive evidence suggests that it irritates authoritarian regimes, inspires democrats, and creates greater space for civil society," he says.

The mission at RFE/RL, a pioneer in U.S. international public broadcasting, didn't end in 1989. It merely moved further east and south. (The Europe in its name is an anachronism; the original Central European stations were shuttered years ago.)
RFE/RL broadcasts in 28 languages to some of the highest-priority and most difficult countries for U.S. foreign policy today. It's the most popular station in Afghanistan (with a 67% market share in a country where radio is the main source of information), and one of the last free broadcast outlets in Russia, Central Asia and Belarus, and the American voice in Persian in Iran.

But there are several strikes against them. The first is the new "media rich" environment. With so much competition from the Internet, podcasts, widespread satellite television and radio--none of which existed in Cold War days--the surrogate stations, such as RFE/RL, Radio Free Asia or Radio Marti for Cuba, are struggling to hold on to listeners and influence, along with the rest of old media.

In addition, the "surrogates" suffer from an existential crisis of their own. The nine-person Broadcast Board of Governors, the federal agency responsible for all government-supported international stations, is bipartisan, but deeply politicized and with a reputation for micromanagement. Recent years saw the division blurred between surrogate (epitomized by RFE/RL's stations) and traditional public diplomacy broadcasting that had been the preserve of the Voice of America, which as the name suggests is tasked with explaining U.S. policies to the world.

The board experimented with different approaches, pushing a commercial radio model on the stations intended to win young listeners with music and playing down the old staple of serious programming about politics, the economy and culture. Old timers were aghast. "The war of ideas has been demoted to the battle of the bands," noted one participant at a McCormick Tribune Conference earlier this year on the future of U.S. international broadcasting.

The quality and professionalism of the stations have come under attack as well, most notably at Radio Farda, the Iranian service, until recently run jointly by RFE/RL and Voice of America. Alhurra, the television broadcaster to the Arabic-speaking world, got into political trouble earlier this year for airing interviews with terrorists. Its director resigned.

The final strike is structural. Government-run agencies tend to be bureaucratic and inertia-bound; in other words, wholly ill-suited for the fast-paced media world. Marc Ginsberg, an Arabic-speaking former U.S. ambassador, says "public diplomacy needs to evolve" and tap the best of America's private sector expertise in Hollywood or on Madison Avenue.

Mr. Ginsberg co-founded a nonprofit television production company, Layalina, which makes shows that are then sold to Arab-language networks in the Middle East. Its "On the Road in America," which followed four Arabs on a 10-week trip across the U.S., was one of the most popular shows in the Arab world this year.

Mr. Gedmin, 49, spent a chunk of his career at the American Enterprise Institute and then ran the Aspen Institute Berlin before taking his current job in Prague. He agrees with a lot of this criticism. Early on he shuffled personnel and pushed RFE/RL back toward its original "surrogate radio" role with the caveat, he says, that when appropriate, the stations shouldn't shy from trying to explain America to a world so rich with anti-Americanism.
"Our mission is news," he says. "It's not psy-ops, it's not U.S.-G [government] line, it's news. But we tell [local staff] two things. It has got to have a purpose--to be promoting democratic values and institutions. We also tell them to shoot straight. It's indispensable for credibility in our markets. The moment that any country like Iran thinks that we are a front for the Bush administration or for U.S. policy we will lose credibility."

He acknowledges some people in the U.S. won't like it. Aware of the political damage done by Alhurra to the reputation of U.S. international broadcasting, Mr. Gedmin quickly adds that anti-Americanism isn't tolerated and dares anyone to provide proof of it at his shop. But émigré-run stations are prone to factionalism and to broadcast what sometimes sounds strange to American ears.

"You've got to create space to let them find their own voice to talk to their own people," Mr. Gedmin says. "It is not my voice. My voice doesn't translate well into Persian."

Radio Farda is the priority fix. He wrested full control over the station from Voice of America upon taking office, and put in new Iranian management. Next he looked at the programming.

"The editorial content was very weak, and very underwhelming, and in some cases just downright misguided," Mr. Gedmin says. "When I came they thought, 'Oh my gosh, Washington, Bush, neocon.' All I did was I sat down with them day after day and said, 'What kind of groups do you want to reach inside Iran?' And they said, 'Labor, students, women--a political class open to political change.' And I said, 'Do we do that?' 'Not really,' they said. 'Ok, so what are the issues [they care about]?' I asked." The response: "Economy, corruption are very big. Human rights."

Radio Farda has moved to push these different kinds of stories more forcefully. Its news and commentary is now supposed to be geared at an elite audience.

There as elsewhere, the idea behind surrogate broadcasting is to inform as well as to start a conversation and encourage critical thinking inside those countries by injecting independent news and ideas unavailable in the local media. Mr. Gedmin cites the coverage of fuel rationing this summer in Iran, which the state-run broadcasters avoided.

"We sent reporters to gas stations who went up to people who said, 'I've been waiting for five hours in my car and this government is giving my money to Hezbollah. I'm furious.' We put it on the Web site, we put it on the radio. We had about three hundred calls."

Mehdi Khalaji, a former Farda staffer now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who put out a critical report about the station just before Mr. Gedmin took over, says quality control and training remain a problem. "[Mr. Gedmin] needs to hire impartial journalists to monitor Radio Farda," he says. Mr. Gedmin says attracting top journalists to Prague, and on contracts paid in the sinking U.S. dollar, is a challenge. But he says the station is now on the right track.

Most of the region covered by Prague-based stations is on the wrong track, marked by rising authoritarianism (and anti-Americanism), particularly in Russia. Prague has, reprising the role played by Munich, become one meeting point for people interested in championing the free press and democracy in Russia, the Caucasus, Iran and Central Asia.

In October, the station marked the one year anniversary of the assassination of Russia's best-known journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, with a large conference. A small research team, though a shadow of its Cold War self, looks at media and political trends in its new region. It's probably too small. The McCormick Tribune report notes "substantial analytical research capability" is a "prerequisite for fully effective 'surrogate' broadcasting."

Mr. Gedmin says the radio needs to push further into cell phone texting, podcasts and other new technology to deliver its programming. He hired a new editor for its dowdy Internet site.

With the crackdown on independent voices in Vladimir Putin's Russia, the Russian-language Radio Liberty will have to find new ways to broadcast radio, television and written news and analysis into the country through the Web. "The Russians are kicking us off the air," Mr. Gedmin says. "Pretty soon we're going to have to go to an Internet strategy. If we get it right, it could be the refuge for liberal thought in Russia."

It's effect is hard to gauge and a source of dispute--in the target countries and in budget battles on Capitol Hill. Radio Farda is listened to by about 13.5% of the radio audience, according to telephone surveys. For all 28 services, the average is 10%. "We care about audience size," Mr. Gedmin says. "Never misunderstand me. But you can't measure our success by audience size alone."

As far as its importance goes, Mr. Gedmin cites all the efforts made by governments to jam the radio signal, block the Web site and publicly denounce RFE/RL. Its journalists, as others in repressive countries, take considerable risks to do their jobs. This year, two RFE/RL reporters have been killed and one kidnapped (and freed after two weeks) in Iraq, two went missing for several weeks in Turkmenistan, two fled Russia, one was detained in Iran for eight months, and two Afghans were threatened with beheading by the Taliban and one kidnapped.
A 26-year-old reporter for the Uzbek service was shot and killed in October in front of his office in Kyrgyzstan. He had told colleagues in Prague that he had been followed by Uzbek security.

Skeptics notice the early changes. "Jeff's the best thing to happen to RFE/RL in a decade," says Enders Wimbush, a vocal critic who headed Radio Liberty in 1987-93 and currently works at Washington's Hudson Institute.

Yet the outcome of Mr. Gedmin's battle to convince Congress that American taxpayers ought to pick up more of the tab won't be known for a while. Its budget, at $77 million this year, is down from $230 million in 1995, when the U.S. cashed the "peace dividend." None of Mr. Gedmin's successors managed to get Capitol Hill to commit any new resources in 12 years.

How to put American public diplomacy in support of democracy back in high gear is an immediate challenge, no matter who ends up living in the White House. Mr. Gedmin wants to get international surrogate broadcasters back into the discussion. "At a time when everybody is arguing 'soft power' is so important, this kind of broadcast is the ultimate in soft power," he says. "It costs peanuts. And it has a measurable impact of success."

Mr. Kaminski is editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Under the Charles bridge...

During my stroll yesterday morning I ended up on the west side of the river under the bridge. I had never been there before so I snapped some pictures.

You can see the statues that line the bridge. Also, note the wooden barriers in the water that serve to protect the bridge from ice and runaway boats.

Looking southeast towards the center of the city. You can climb the tower at the end of the bridge (I have several times) and view is spectacular. The cost is about 50 crowns (less than $3).

Looking eastward under the Charles at one of the other bridges that serve the city. There are 13 bridges spanning the Vlatava in Prague, and more or on the way as two ring roads are being built. (Sadly, like the extension of the metro to the airport, we shan't be here for the completion).

I got a bit lucky with this picture, with the duck landing in the foreground just as I took it. I could see it was coming, but there is a split second delay from when the button is pushed to when the picture is actually taken. Like I said - luck.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Starbucks in Prague - Update...

Our church, St. Thomas, is less than a block from where the first Starbucks in Prague is going on Malostranska namesti. So after dropping Noah off at Sunday school I took my usual walk, but swung by the site to snap a few pictures. Here is a look at where it will go. In the bottom picture you can see the orange sign. I have heard that the opening date is January 24th.

Artists on the Charles bridge...

Sunday school was back in session today after the holiday break (when most families leave the Czech Republic for wherever home is). Kathy had a doctor's appointment this morning so it was just Noah and me.

After dropping Noah off at the church for Sunday school I took the usual stroll to the Charles bridge. It was quieter than usual today. If there is a low season for tourism in Prague, this is it. After the holidays and before the weather warms in March and the outdoor cafes begin to reopen.

Today I took some pictures of the wares that are sold on the bridge. As a pedestrian bridge and one of the main tourism spots, it is a prime location for selling things. Thankfully, most of the items sold on the bridge are artistic in nature and not the typical junk sold elsewhere in the city (like the "Czech National Drinking Team" T-shirts).

There are probably 50 or so vendors selling things on the bridge - here are a few.


There are a few caricaturists. You see Joe Cocker, who was just in concert here a few weeks ago.

Original art is very big on the bridge and represents probably the single largest category. You can get water colors, color and black and white photography, etc.

The other primary category is jewelry of all kinds. Like everything else on the bridge it is pushed as local and hand made, but you are never really quite sure.

Here is a one of a kind on the bridge - a man, his monkey and a calliope. He plays the music and people throw money into the little bucket. The calliope plays well enough but a little calliope music goes a very long way. He even has CDs to sell, but I'm not sure who buys them. On the way back across the bridge there were a few Japanese tourists who were looking at the CDs and he was trying to describe the kind of music that was on them by acting it out - I surmised that one CD had uptempo music while another was slower (!?). I didn't stay to see if they bought anything.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Movie nights...

Our neighbor, Gaye Foote, brought back some DVDs for us from her recent visit to the States. We got The Simpsons Movie, Shrek the Third, and Underdog. So for three nights in a row we had a family movie night. This is usually a fairly rare event and we have certainly never done three nights in a row.

Noah picked the order of the movies, and of course he picked the Simpsons first (for Thursday night), even though that was the only of the three movies we have seen. It was funny and I picked up quite a few gags I hadn't noticed the first time in the theatre.

Friday night was Shrek the Third. I loved the first two Shrek movies, but this one not so much (though Kathy thought it was much better than the second). I thought it just ambled along without much of a plot. Also, did anyone else notice that Shrek has gone from a solid green to kind of a pale yellow? Noah liked it.

Tonight was Underdog. I wasn't even aware that this movie was coming out, mostly because it doesn't even open here in Europe until next month. I had no idea what to expect, although I had assumed that it would be a completely computer generated movie like Shrek or Toy Story. I was a little disappointed that it was live action with humans (if Jim Belushi qualifies as human) and a lot of CGI. I didn't care for it, but I doubt 49 year old males were the demographic the movie was shooting for. Noah loved it.

The movie did remind me of the old cartoon. I used to watch it at home during lunch (yes, I walked from school to home every day to have lunch). I never thought of Underdog as a great cartoon in the same league as Rocky and Bullwinkle or Johnny Quest, but it was OK. I had forgotten about the speaking in rhyme, Sweet Polly Purebred and Cad.

So, Noah decided that the Simpsons and Underdog were tied as his favorite, with Shrek not far behind.

Movie nights are a great family activity and I relish them while I can. It won't be many years before the last thing Noah will want to do is spend an evening with his parents watching a movie.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Is this progress? Starbucks coming to Prague...


The Prague post reports that Starbucks will open their first Prague store by the end of January. The location is a prime spot on Malostranske namesti ("small square" that is a short walk from the Charles bridge and is in the cnter of the tourist district. We have heard about this for some time, but this is the first confirmation we have seen.

Interestingly, the restaurant that had been where the Starbucks is going, called Square, is where Kathy and I went with Nick and Mary when they visited in October. Kathy and I were at Square a half a dozen times and always enjoyed the food and the atmosphere (although it was a little too upscale to visit regularly). I think that Square was reasonably successful so Starbucks must have paid a pretty penny to get the location.

Starbucks to open in Prague by the end of January
Chain's first location will be in historic coffeehouse

Starbucks will open its first café in Prague at the end of January, Finanční noviny reports.

The Seattle-based chain of cafés signed a joint-venture contract with AmRest Holdings N.V. to launch and manage its fleet of cafes in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary. The Netherlands-based company operates 252 chain restaurants in Central and Eastern Europe, including KFC, Pizza Hut and Burger King.

The first cafe will open on Malostranske namesti in the Gromling Palace, which AmRest plans to renovate and turn into a neighborhood venue. The location has a storied history – it was formerly a popular Old Town kavarna for Czech writers and philosophers.

Starbucks, which has over 15,000 cafes in over 40 countries, wants to open 20 cafes this year in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary and also plans to enter the Bulgarian and Polish markets.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Senators at RFE/RL...

We had four Republican US senators visit our Prague headquarters this afternoon. The distinguished visitors were Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL), Senator John Thune (R-SD), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Larry Craig (R-ID).

They met with our president, Jeff Gedmin, visited the offices of Radio Free Afghanistan and then each participated in interviews with our central news group as well as Radio Free Iraq and radio Free Afghanistan.


Senator John Thune (R-SD)

Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL)

Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA)

Senator Larry Craig (R-ID)

Senator Craig is recently famous for his arrest at Minneapolis/St. Paul airport for lewd conduct, later pleading guilty to a lesser offense. From Wikipedia:

Larry Edwin Craig (born July 20, 1945) is an American politician from the state of Idaho. As a Republican, he has represented the state of Idaho in the United States Senate since 1991. In addition, Craig served in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Idaho's 1st congressional district (1981–1991).[2] Including his service in the House of Representatives, Craig is the second-longest serving member of the United States Congress in Idaho history, trailing only William Edgar Borah. In addition to serving in Congress, Craig has been a member of the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association since 1983.[3] Craig has also been selected for induction into the Idaho Hall of Fame.[4] Although he was selected in March 2007, the announcement was made in October 2007.[5]

On August 27, 2007 the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call revealed that Craig had been arrested for lewd conduct in a men's bathroom on June 11, 2007, and pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of disorderly conduct on August 8, 2007.[6] As a result of the controversy surrounding his arrest and subsequent guilty plea, Senator Craig announced his intention to resign from the Senate at a news conference on September 1, 2007, which was to become effective on September 30, 2007. After failing to withdraw his guilty plea, on October 4, 2007, Craig released a statement refusing to resign as Senator for Idaho. Craig has stated that he will not run for re-election in 2008.[7]

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

More Noah soccer...

Yesterday was the first Jaro soccer since before the holidays. Jaro is the Czech coach, and he is well known enough that his soccer classes/camps fill up quickly and have waiting lists. Noah loves it, but (as I posted before) when he started he was made fun of because his skills were so underdeveloped compared to the European kids (I don't think there are any other Americans in the group).

Noah had his new soccer uniform (more correctly known as a "football kit") consisting of shirt and shorts that we had bought at a market in Rome for 25 Euros. He loves getting new soccer clothes - this kit is from Inter Milan and it has the name of the club's star, Adriano, on the back.

Here is a short clip showing Adriano in action.


The kids do warm ups and drills for about 25 minutes and then spend the rest of the time in a game. Noah has had success recently both as a goalie and a scorer, but today his team went down to a 6-1 defeat. He spent about 1/3 of the game in goal and gave up two goals.

Noah and the rest of his football mates warm up with some skill drills.



Noah (far left) is the goalie and this shot that got by him couldn't be stopped by his defense (in blue).


Noah deflected this shot up and off the metal - the ball is visible just hitting the crossbar. It was a highlight in a game filled with lowlights.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Picture from St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Christmas Eve...

Here are pictures from our Christmas Eve adventure at the Vatican. The story is below.