Hag Pesach Sameach!

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Hag Pesach Sameach! Good Passover! !חג פסח שמח

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The Chicago streetcar—a piece of history

When the communists of the Chicago municipality started digging up my main street to work on its streetscape—that means, building pedestrian islands in the middle of the road every few hundred feet and in the process changing a four-lane street into a two-lane one*—I was quite surprised to discover something interesting in the midst of all the misery this neighborhood is going to endure from now on.

In the places where they have dug up the street surface, two sets of railroads have appeared—something that’s been buried down there for over half a century.

streetcar

It turns out Chicago once had one of the most extensive streetcar networks in the world. According to chicagoinmaps.com, by 1935, the streetcar lines covered more than 500 miles of Chicago streets, running on nearly 100 routes. From 1859 to 1958, the streetcar was the most efficient means of transportation for carless Chicagoans. And you have to admit, the network back then was rather impressive. Today’s L-trains don’t cover even half of the territory that the streetcar used to.

So what happened to the streetcar? First, the L—Chicago’s elevated train network. And then along came buses that were deemed a more efficient means of transportation. So in June 1958, Chicago’s last streetcar made its final journey.

Now I am not somehow saying that I miss the streetcar. I’m not a huge fan of public transportation anyway, and I especially dislike noisy means of transport like anything that runs on rails. Besides, I grew up in Tallinn that to this day has those ugly iron heaps of junk running on four lines.

But from a historical point of view, it was an interesting find for me.

*This is one of the reasons why I hate socialism: someone gets an idiotic idea to make the majority’s life miserable and without giving it too much thought, it is put in the works. And before we know it, the minority is ruling over the majority.

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The Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Here’s a short video of the Chicago St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 15, 2014.

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!פורים שמח

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Have a happy Purim!

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January 27, 1945. Holocaust Remembrance Day

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When Russia invaded Estonia—and Jack Ryan saved it

This post first appeared on EstonianWorld.

The front cover of Command Authority.

The front cover of Command Authority.

The time is “present day.” Russia’s president is a former KGB officer who uses phrases like “The fall of the Soviet Union was one of the greatest tragedies of the last century.” The modern reincarnation of the KGB—the FSB—is all-powerful in Russia. Businesses are “nationalized”—which is “new-speak” for stealing—and their stolen wealth is for some peculiar reason handled by Russia’s national natural gas company Gazprom.

Indeed, that is a pretty accurate description of today’s Russia, which in recent years has come more and more to resemble its predecessor, the Soviet Union. The country is run by a czar who says there is a “special democracy” which exists in Russia; and when the czar decides to extend the country’s sphere of influence beyond its borders, the rest of the world just watches without having the cojones to do anything about it.

Fortunately, this is not the case in Tom Clancy’s latest and last novel, Command Authority. Clancy, who in October last year sadly died, didn’t believe in appeasement and rightly so. And that is what makes his last novel so enjoyable.

Using historical facts and situations that have happened in the recent years in and around the Russian Federation, Command Authority paints a grim picture for Estonia. The tiny Nordic country is invaded by Russian forces, retaliating for “terrorist acts” against its eastern neighbour, and despite it being a NATO member, the alliance hasn’t seemingly come to Estonia’s defence. Clancy’s description of the brief war, including a map of the town of Põlva in south-eastern Estonia, titled “The Battle for Põlva,” sends shivers across one’s back, especially when one has a connection with the country—mainly because the action is so incredibly realistic that one could actually imagine it all happening.

I guess part of the reason why it seems so real is the fact that Russia has indeed constantly threatened its neighbours when they don’t comply with its demands. Look at Georgia—the country lost part of its territory in a brief but bloody war, just because the Kremlin decided to teach its southern neighbour a lesson. Who is there to say the same thing couldn’t happen to Estonia?

Another part, though, that makes it seem too real, is the fact that Tom Clancy is revered as a kind of prophet. The author did somewhat predict the 9/11 terrorist attacks, although in Debt of Honor, it was a Japanese pilot who flew his plane into the U.S. Congress. In a way, he also predicted the Russian-Georgian war, and the capture of Osama bin Laden. As a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, “I would be worried when living in Põlva.”

Fortunately for Estonia, the president of the United States in Command Authority is not a communist-leaning appeaser as it is the case in the real world. President Jack Ryan—yes, the same CIA analyst played by Harrison Ford in the films—does send troops to help Estonians defend their country. And moreover, when the action moves south to Ukraine, he makes sure that the Americans do their best to help the country—where the Russian nation did indeed spring from—at least get a fighting chance.

But that is not the gist of the novel, not to worry; nor is it a spoiler. Command Authority has so many twists and turns you wouldn’t believe. Of course, this is something a reader Tom Clancy’s work is accustomed to. And even though the novel is written together with Mark Greaney, it does have Clancy written all over it. One would assume that this Greaney character only helped finalize the book due to Clancy’s untimely death. And even if that is not the case, we’re certainly looking at a world-class thriller with lessons to learn.

Yes, I think there are lessons to learn from the novel. Considering the documentalist nature of the book, the incredible similarities the book bears to the real-life events and the entirely similar characteristics to how today’s Russia operates, I think the more people read this book, the more people will become aware of what today’s Russia really entails. There are still so many people around the globe who think that Russia is a normal, democratic country and the people and nations that don’t see this are just bullying it. What we have to actually see is how Russia itself is bullying everyone around it. As the famous fictional British spy James Bond said in the 1995 film GoldenEye, “Governments change, the lies stay the same.” This is very much the case with Russia, now, 23 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union more so than ever.

One thing is certain though. In a few weeks, thousands of Estonians will be glued to their TV screens, under the naïve illusion that if an Estonian cross-country skier does well in Sochi, it’ll bring unimaginable amounts of fame and glory to the tiny nation. Trust me, it doesn’t. But a great novel from a renowned author can at least make people around the globe acknowledge there is such a country as Estonia. And that is a good thing.

This post first appeared on EstonianWorld.

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The company that is even more useless than Royal Mail—United States Postal fucking Service

After five years of having fun with Royal Mail in the UK I really thought it was the worst delivery service in the entire universe. Boy have I been proved wrong. Never ever in my life have I seen a worse service than the United States Postal Service. I mean, it’s as if they make a special effort to provide the shittiest service one could ever imagine.

What the Royal Mail used to do is put the “Sorry you were out” notices in people’s mailboxes even though they didn’t even bother to bring you the parcel they were supposed to. When that came out—and I was a victim of that many, many times—they changed the labeling. These days the notice says, “Something for you” so that you wouldn’t even expect the mailman to actually deliver the parcel, you’d just go to the delivery office and pick your parcel up yourself.

Well, the USPS is even worse. They don’t even attempt to deliver your package, but just lie through their teeth.

On January 17, I ordered something from Amazon. Apparently it was to be delivered by something called UPS SurePost, which is, as the name says, an UPS service, not USPS. However, the UPS SurePost description says, the “service combines the consistency and reliability of the UPS Ground network with final delivery typically provided by the U.S. Postal Service.”

So, my package arrived in Chicago, according to the UPS tracking history, on January 18. On January 20 it was sent “out for delivery”. However, even though I was home, the tracking history claims “The business was closed today. A delivery attempt will be made on the next business day.” And that’s an outright lie, as the “business” was wide open and I was fucking home.

All right then. When the next business day came, nothing happened. No “delivery attempts” were made. But, as the tracking history shows, at 1:10 p.m. the package was “transferred to post office”. Whatever the fuck it means—because, interestingly, the package was “received by the local post office on January 22 at 10:29 a.m. What the fuck did the package do from 1:10 p.m. to 10:29 a.m. the next day is a mystery.

UPS

Okay, so on January 22, I stayed at home the entire day. Waiting for my package. Waiting and waiting and waiting… And what didn’t come was the FUCKING PACKAGE. The UPS tracking history still said it was at my local post office, and the USPS history said they had received it. That’s it.

Then, around 10:00 p.m. I reloaded the USPS page and got this: “January 22, 2014 , 6:43 pm Available for Pickup CHICAGO, IL 60640.”

Where is it available and where can I pick it up is a fucking mystery.

USPS

But, it gets better. Because, the UPS tracking history is more elaborate: “Chicago, IL, United States 01/22/2014 6:43 P.M. Post office attempted delivery and left a delivery notice at the location. Contact post office per delivery notice.”

UPS

Now, I SAW the mailman come round my house around 4 p.m. He didn’t deliver the package. He didn’t ring my doorbell. He probably didn’t even know there was a package I was eagerly anticipating. And at 6:43 p.m. I was home, being frustrated at the fact that my parcel hadn’t arrived. There was no delivery attempt. Moreover, THERE WAS NO DELIVERY NOTICE. This is an outright lie.

As of now, I have no idea whether my package even exists. Or whether I exist. It may very well be that all this is happening in a parallel universe and my parcel or I might actually be the figment of someone’s imagination. I would not be surprised.

But the thing is, all this gets even better.

My wife’s friend sent her a package from Estonia in the middle of December. This is the tracking history of this package:

USPS

Today, I filed a complaint with USPS regarding this. Because, not a cell in my body understands why a small package arrived at Elk Grove Village’s sorting facility on December 28, 2013, hasn’t yet been delivered 17.6 miles southeast. Moreover, according to that same tracking history, it’s been sitting in Elk Grove Village since, and the last record of it was on January 13, 2014, when it was still there. After that—silence. And not a fucking soul in the world probably knows what the hell is going on.

But since I filed a complaint, the USPS has “two business days” to get back to me. We’ll see what utter cockamamie bullshit they come up with.

The fascinating thing is, however, that this shit goes on every single fucking time I order something. Just a few weeks ago I bought something from Phoenix, AZ, and it took the USPS over a week to deliver this. And yes, I checked, Phoenix is about a 20-hour drive from Chicago. What the actual fuck, gentlemen? How hard can it be?

And if something gets delivered by UPS Ground, they just leave my stuff outside the front door, on the street, for everybody to see. They actually left a $1,500 item there and I still don’t know who would’ve paid for it if it had been stolen. I’m sorry, but this is total disregard to people’s property.

Bottom line, both UPS and USPS can go fuck themselves.

And another bottom line: I absolutely love FedEx. The best delivery service I’ve experienced anywhere.

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Getting a driver’s license in the U.S.

The header of the Illinois driver's license.

The header of the Illinois driver’s license.

The older people get, the more difficult it is for them to learn new things. And yes, you might say 34 is not that old yet but hey, I hadn’t planned on learning anything as profound as a country’s traffic rules in this lifetime again. Besides, old dog, new tricks, you know how it goes.

I’ve been driving over 20 years, since I was 12. The last time I had to learn for a driving test was in 1997 when I was 18. When I exchanged my Estonian license for a UK one, I only had to pay £50 and fill in a form, and my new license was sent to me by mail. No tests.

Now, however, I had to do it all again. And even though I had planned on doing vision and written only, when I today went to the DMV I learned I had to do a road test—that’s actual driving—as well. On the other hand, the thing I feared the most was the written test.

Americans get their driver’s license when they’re 16 or 18, depending on the state, so this post isn’t at all interesting for them. But for people who are moving or have recently moved to the U.S. this might be useful. Just bear in mind that I’m not sure how this process works in other states, but I think it should be fairly similar to Illinois.

It doesn’t matter how long you’ve had your foreign driver’s license, or how long you’ve driven. When you move to Illinois and apply for a license, you’ll be treated as a new driver without a license. Which can be good, too, because if you move from another state, your out-of-state license will be confiscated. But if you have a UK license for example, they will let you keep it. And that will make renting a car in Europe much, much easier.

When you move to Illinois, you can drive for 90 days with your foreign license. After that, you have to get a local license. And since my 90 days were almost running out, I finally had to pull my feet out of my ass and go to the DMV.

Of course, one doesn’t just simply go to the DMV to apply for a license. First, one has to study. My technique was reading the Rules of the Road about three times, going over all the traffic signs many, many times (because they’re different from Europe, and they do test you thoroughly to see that you recognize the shapes and colors), and then doing all possible free tests on the internet: some of these, and then ALL of these, including the marathon test which I took twice—to be on the safe side.

There is one thing I have to say about the traffic rules and these tests. In many countries, especially in Europe, U.S. driver’s licenses are not valid or are at least frowned upon. That is insanely stupid—from what I remember, the tests in Estonia were much, much simpler, and there was so much less to learn and remember. The authorities in Europe probably have no idea how profound the traffic rules are here, and thus have a misconception as if people were just handed their driver’s licenses in the U.S. without doing anything. That is incredibly wrong, and people who have studied for driving tests in the U.S. probably know more about driving than any European.

Coming back to the issue at hand now, after I had excelled the practice tests on the internet, I went to the local DMV and started my application.

First, when you’re here on a visa, you have to remember to print out your I-94 form and take it with you. In addition, you need your passport and your visa, your social security card, and two proofs of address. For the latter, you can use the stub on your social security card and, for example, the title of your car (or a bank statement or something similar and official).

After the clerk has filled in your data and done a vision test, you’ll be sent to the cashier to pay the appropriate fee ($30 in IL), and then you get to take your written test. The written tests consist of 20 multiple choice questions (aced it!) which are similar to the practice tests online, but not the same; and 15 traffic signs which you have to know (I made one mistake). You have to get 80% to pass, and tell you the truth, it’s not that difficult to get it right. Many of the questions you can answer using common sense—although this is not absolute, sometimes the ‘safest’ possible answer isn’t the correct one, for example. Most of the questions are based on the actual rules and you really have to know them to get it right.

So when you’re done with the written test and passed, you’ll be sent to do the road test. You have to have a car (obviously), the car has to be insured (this is checked at least three times) and it has to be safe to drive. Your examiner—mine was a nice lady called Sherri (or Sherry)—will sit in the passenger’s seat and tell you where to drive. We drove around for about 10 minutes, one-way streets, all-way stops, left turns, right turns, parking the car (imaginarily downhill to see whether I know where to point the wheels), that sort of stuff. Then back in the DMV parking lot I had to drive through a passage marked with cones, reverse, then park into a ‘garage’, reverse and turn right and that was it. Done.

Back at the testing station I was told that not even Jesus Christ gets 0 points in a road test—something I accomplished. My photo was taken, I gave my signature and in about two-three minutes I had my brand new Illinois driver’s license.

One other thing I have to say though—I have never in my life met so nice, so helpful officials. I mean, we’ve all seen on TV, especially on The Simpsons, that the officials at the DMV are utter assholes. Why are they portrayed like that is beyond me—they’re nothing like that and considering the experience I had today, such portrayal is even offensive. I’m going to say this again: all the officials at the Chicago North DMV are amazingly nice and helpful and it was an absolute joy to get my license there.

Oh, and another good thing about having a local ID is the ease of buying booze. My UK license was always confusing for cashiers at stores; this one now has a bar code in the back they just have to scan to confirm I’m over 21.

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Top 10 books I read in 2013

2013 was a rather successful year in terms of reading as I occasionally had quite a lot of free time in my hands, especially in the second half of the year. So thanks to that, I got to read some of the oldies I so far hadn’t, and some of the new ones that were published in 2013 for the first time.

Many say that people don’t read any more and that is really sad. So here are the ten best books I read this year and I hope that some of you, who accidentally come to this page and haven’t read something really good in a long time, will feel intrigued enough to pick up a book.

10. Lee Childs—Killing Floor

This is the novel that introduced Jack Reacher, a former military police investigator who decided to quit his job and disappear, drifting through the vast countryside of the United States. In Killing Floor, Jack Reacher (who, by the way, looks nothing like Tom Cruise according to Lee Childs’ description), is trying to solve a counterfeit money case in a little fictional town in Georgia after himself being accused of murder. This is not the book the film Jack Reacher was based on; however, story-wise it could’ve been quite an enjoyable action flick.

9. John Steinbeck—Of Mice and Men

A well-written short story that seems to be very famous in America and appears to have a special place in the American curriculum—at least that’s the impression I’ve got from some movies. So, prior to moving to the U.S., I decided to read it. It’s a story about one slightly mentally challenged man who likes to touch women against their will. As you can imagine, stuff like this never ends well.

8. Arturo Pérez-Reverte—The Club Dumas

This is the book that inspired the film “The Ninth Gate,” starring Johnny Depp and Frank Langella. I say “inspired” because in truth, the film only bears some resemblance to the novel, which was a lot longer, more diverse and the outcome was different. It’s a great book for thriller lovers and I wouldn’t want to spoil it too much for you—so I’ll just say it’s about a book detective that takes on a job that is perhaps too much for him to handle. And that also pretty much concludes the movie’s resemblance to the book.

7. John Le Carré—A Delicate Truth

Le Carré’s newest novel is a really, really enjoyable read as all his works, only that… It just gets so incredibly left-wing and anti-government that at times it starts hurting the story itself. I know, Le Carré has always been a leftie, and he has always emphasised his views in most his books but this time… it was perhaps a tad too much. The book is about a civil servant who voluntarily lets himself to be dragged into an intelligence operation. In the aftermath of the operation, he finds out that the government has been lying to him and the operation went tits up—for which he starts to feel guilty. As I said, it’s a good read and Le Carré is a literary genius, just try to take it with a pinch of salt.

6. Dan Brown—Inferno

This is one of the books I was really looking forward to. The next adventure of the Harvard symbologist, Robert Langdon, takes him to Florence where his mission is to stop a doctor gone crazy, trying to set off a biological weapon. Although, as in all Dan Brown’s novels, nothing is like it seems and Langdon has to chew through a load of clues and symbols to get to the bottom of it. A really good book and I can’t wait until Tom Hanks stops playing Walt Disney and gets back to what he’s supposed to do.

5. Donald Rumsfeld—Rumsfeld’s Rules

I had no idea Rummy was funny. But this was really quite an entertaining read, compiled of several “rules” the former defense secretary had picked up and lived by during his long career. A slightly autobiographical book, it can be regarded as a leadership manual on how to run things, both low and high key, private and public sector. A highly recommended read for all future (and present) leaders and managers.

4. Truman Capote—In Cold Blood

I can’t really find an excuse to why I had waited so long to read this. I mean, it’s one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, so amazingly and brilliantly written that when reading this, on every page I felt that if I ever manage to become a writer, I would want to write that well—and realizing on almost every page that I can never really do that, which is a sad realization. A nonfiction novel about a gruesome murder in a small town in Kansas, it shows us the picture of two sides—first, how people cope with and handle when a terrible crime happens in the backyard of a small community; and second, what goes through the heads of the lowlifes who decide to murder an entire family just because they didn’t find what they were looking for and didn’t want to leave witnesses behind. In Cold Blood is an all-American novel, and Truman Capote, an all-American author, did an insanely good job on that. And more, his own side story to writing the novel, which has been widely publicized, is no less important to the brilliance of this book.

3. Anne Applebaum—Iron Curtain

This book I wrote about right after reading it, so there’s no point in repeating it all.

2. Thomas Keneally—Schindler’s Ark

Yet another nonfiction novel that I got my hands onto in 2013. I’m sure everybody knows what this book is about, even though the film based on it was called “Schindler’s List”. The novel is a work of art and everybody interested in the history of the Holocaust and the European Jewry prior and during that horrible time should read it. Even if you’ve seen the movie, because, like always, the book is way better.

1. Leon Uris—Exodus

This is another book that was made into a major film, and definitely the best book I read last year. After seeing the movie probably a hundred times, I’m really glad I picked up the book because… it is just a masterpiece. Not only is it more thorough, slightly different and contains four times as much information as the book, it also explains so many things about the history of the Jews in the 19th and 20th century. Not only is this book about the creation of the State of Israel, it also explains the diverse history and the life stories of people whose persistence and determination helped create it. Going through the hardships the main characters had to endure, it’s a story of incredible people’s hard work that, at the end and through different ways (which each and every one of them thought was right) led to their common dream.

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The Republican Party needs to be the party of common sense—not the opposite

Yesterday the Republican National Committee posted a questionnaire on Facebook asking their fans “to help shape the future of the Republican Party.” I took the questionnaire and answered truthfully according to how I feel, but at the same time I felt that something was missing. What, you ask? All the important issues, all the important questions.

Even though I’m a Republican and, if I could vote in the United States, I would hold my breath and still vote Republican (without even considering voting for Democrats as their agenda is truly repulsive most of the time), I have to say the party line in the recent years has become the negative voice in politics. Instead of trying to solve problems, the GOP is adamant on creating new ones; instead of trying to form an agenda that would lead the country forwards, the Republican Party has become the force of laggers, holding back progress and forgetting that both the times and people have changed.

As such, the Republican Party needs to modernize. The Republican Party needs to understand that it’s the 21st century. They need to realize that being in opposition with everything and everyone—even its former self—will lead to the destruction of it. And then you will really see Obama’s dream of the Communist States of America come true!

In my opinion, the most pressing issues the Republican Party has to address to make itself electable again are (or should be):

1. Be the party of free will. The original conservative value is supporting the people’s right to do what they think is best for them as long as they’re not hurting others. Less regulation, less idiotic rules, less meddling with people’s lives. FREE WILL.

2. Drop your opposition to equal marriage. People have the right to love whomever they want. And it’s not your or anybody else’s business what people do in their bedrooms. LAY OFF.

3. Loosen up on religion. A person’s beliefs are a private matter, you don’t have to go round hitting people with a bible. Free will again, ladies and gentlemen. People want to have the right to believe in what they want to believe in and, moreover, people want to have the right to not believe. RESPECT PEOPLE.

4. Traditions are not good because they’re old. Traditions are old because they’re good. Fight for traditions, but never forget their origins, and never forget that people, nations and their traditions change and that’s a good thing. RESPECT PROGRESS.

5. Stop attacking the government and the president without providing your own solutions on how to fix this broken economy. The Obama administration is doing such a lousy job on every front that this should be a golden goat for you to milk at every corner; however, you guys keep accusing the administration, blocking it and not even trying to come up with any ideas. I get it, it’s fucking easy to shut down the government, but you’ve got to fight for what you believe, not just give up and go home. PUT UP A GOOD FIGHT.

6. Focus on people. You, as the entire United States, are here of the people, by the people, for the people. Listen to what the people have to say, and listen to what they have said so far. Look at the election results in the recent years and draw your conclusions. LISTEN.

7. And for God’s sake, start looking in the future. You’re too stuck in the past, and some of you are too stuck in the ancient past. Think how you can be useful in the future, not how you’ve fucked up in the past. LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES.

Come to your senses, people. This is a great country, this is the country of dreams coming true, the country of ultimate liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and the Democrats are ruining it with their extensive regulation, wasting enormous amounts of money and trying to build something that doesn’t have a place in America. European-style social democracy doesn’t belong in America—and moreover, since the Democrats are trying to go beyond that and build a Soviet Union-style money-wasting planned economy here, you, my dear GOP, are the only people who can stop them.

To do that, you have to regroup and re-think your values and priorities. You have to once again become the voice of reason, the voice of common sense.

Mark my words—common sense will make you electable again.

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