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Punishing corporations–what’s the point?

I have always found it an absurd notion that corporations have “human rights” such as the freedom of speech guaranteed in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Human rights should be reserved for humans. The whole point of a corporation is the principle of limited liability–the owners can only lose what they have invested in the company, whatever other assets they own are off limits. Given this impersonal nature of a corporation, the idea that it has “rights” is plainly wrong.

I think that so far my left-wing friends are with me all the way. But the flip side is that if corporations should not have rights, then they also should not be punished for wrongdoing. As an example, consider the scandal with the GM faulty airbags currently unfolding. Apparently GM knew that there was a problem for several years and did nothing about it. But what is GM? GM is a legal construct, but it does not make decisions. People make decisions. Imagine for the moment that the company is punished. In the extreme, the punishment is so severe that it puts the company out of business. Who is really punished in this case? The shareholders lose the value of their shares, sure. Assuming that they have reasonably diversified portfolios, this is only a minor annoyance. The executives who made the decisions to engage in wrongdoing will lose their jobs, but don’t cry for them–given the obscene levels of executive pay, they don’t need to work the rest of their lives anyway. The people who really suffer in such situations are the rank-and-file workers who lose their jobs and are left high and dry while the bosses who are really the guilty ones retire to the Hamptons.

So, what is the solution? Should companies get off scott-free? Of course not. But if the decisions are made by people, then it is those people who should be punished. It is remarkable that even though banks and other financial institutions have paid billions in fines in the wake of the financial crisis, hardly any executives have gone to prison. In fact, aside from the most blatant fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, I cannot think of any.

Now, some people would argue that punishment does not reduce crime and is applied in a socially unfair manner (think of all the young black men in prison in the US for trivial drug offenses). But here is an opportunity to really use the threat of prison in a constructive way. Executives considering committing economic crime will most certainly be deterred if the probability of getting caught and the severity of the sentence are high enough. It is just a matter of calculation.

What if the wrongdoing is the responsibility of a single worker? Why should the boss then go to jail? There are at least two good answers to this. Firstly, the case of the renegade “lone wolf” is very rare; most of the time, corporate wrongdoing is managed or at least encouraged, at the very top. Secondly, even if this is not the case, the boss is responsible for the actions of his underlings. It is his job to know what is happening on his watch. This may seem unfair, but hey, these guys (and they are mostly guys) get paid big bucks, so a bit of risk to go along with it seems only right.

 

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The highlights of 2013

Just as I did at the end of last year, in the waning days of 2013 I take stock of the year, focusing on the positive events.

The year started at restaurant La Ereta here in Alicante, where my children and I spent New Year’s Eve. It was nice to have them here with me, while my wife was visiting her family in Puerto Rico.

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Later in January, my friend Lars came to visit, as he does every year at this time, and we indulged in our passions of quality beer and quality cycling.

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One day we cycled up to the village of Tibi, reaching an altitude of 750 meters, higher than I have ever cycled before.

Nothing particularly special happened in February. I was in Brussels a couple of times, something that was to repeat itself many times during the year. During one of those February trips I visited my friend Jan in the Flemish countryside, near Dendermonde. The next morning I took a very invigorating walk, enjoying the crisp winter weather.

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In March, both Moses and Monica came home for Easter from their respective UK universities, so once again, the family was together. I went shopping with them, looking for essential supplies at Rincón de la Cerveza, my favourite beer shop.

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The highlight of April was another trip to Brussels, made special by a mini-family reunion arranged by my cousin Nicole. My dear uncle Joseph had come from Le Mans…

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…and my uncle Zvi from Israel, with his delightful Ela:

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We indulged in the best of Belgian culture:

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…and French culture, too:

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In May, there were no big family events (besides my daughter’s 19th birthday), but I had a couple of nice trips to Brussels and to London. During the trip to Brussels, I took one of my favourite pictures of the year on the metro:

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And later in May, I was in London and was invited for dinner at the National Liberal Club by the Chief Economist of the UK Intellectual Property Office, Tony Clayton. Photography is not allowed inside the club, but already from the outside, one gets a feeling for the history of the place:

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The highlight of June was a wonderful, day-long lunch at the country home of our friends Hilarión and Carmen in Almoradí. Hilarión makes the best rice in the world:

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In July, my  son Moses turned 24, but more about him later. The main event for me was a 4-day cycling tour of southern Jutland with my best friend Lars. Last year I did my first multi-day tour, also with Lars in Denmark, but we had to cut it short because of severe (as in: bleeding) saddle sores on my butt. This year, I had a better saddle and more experience, and we were able to complete the route as planned. We cycled 420 km in 4 days, even crossing the border into Germany on Day 2, thus making it my first international bicycle tour ever.

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And how sweet it was to get back to Aarhus and enjoy our moral victory!

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After my cycling trip, we moved to the unquestionable highlight of the year, my son’s graduation with his MEng degree from the University of Bath. It was an unexpectedly emotional occasion for me: when I think that Moses is the grandson of a man from eastern Poland, who grew up in poverty and whose family was almost completely wiped out in the Holocaust…and here, a couple of generations later, my son was receiving a degree from a prestigious English university, at Bath Abbey, the site where the first king of united England was crowned in the 10th century!

We flew to Bristol, rented a car, drove to Bath and the family was reunited:

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Bath is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and during the five years my son studied there, I have had the privilege of visiting from time to time and enjoying views like this:

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But this trip was about Moses’s big day. Here he is, just before the ceremony in Bath Abbey. It brought me immense pleasure that he chose to wear my Liverpool Football Club tie for the ceremony. I have supported this club since early childhood, and have tried to bring up my children in the True Faith. Evidently, I have succeeded!

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And then, the big moment…

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Afterwards, we enjoyed a glass of champagne in the magnificent Pump Room. Our family certainly has come a long way from 1930s Lublin.

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In early August, we went on a cruise around the Mediterranean. I was somewhat skeptical about the idea, since I do not like regimented environments, but at the end of the week I must admit that spending the time with my family in these surroundings was nice:

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August 13th was Aixa’s and mine 30th wedding anniversary. Our children prepared a sumptuous breakfast for us:

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At the end of August, there were a lot of tearful goodbyes. Monica had to go back to Cardiff to re-sit some exams she had failed back in June, and Moses was going to fly off to California in early September to start his first “real” job. We all knew that things would be different from now on.

August 25th was our last evening together. My two beautiful children raise a glass to their future, using quality Belgian beer:

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I spent the last week of August with Monica in Cardiff. We were basically cooped up in a hotel in Cardiff Bay, where she studied for her exams while I took care of various logistics. But there was also some time to enjoy the good weather and the nice surroundings:

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And I got to meet Shaun, Monica’s boyfriend.

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And yes–Monica passed all her re-sit exams and is now in her 2nd year at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

In September, I spent 3 days on business in Ispra in Northern Italy, and we were staying at a hotel on the shores of one of the many lakes in the region, in a small town called Gavirate. A beautiful part of the world, indeed.

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Later in September, I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days in Barcelona in the company of my good friend Lluis who lives there, and visiting photographers from Australia, the UK, elsewhere in Europe, and the US. These meetings in Barcelona are becoming an annual tradition, at least I hope so!

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In October, my sister and brother-in-law came to visit, as they do every year at this time. On October 13th, my sister turned 68. I don’t think her age shows. And my brother-in-law turned 76 in January 2014. He too is keeping well.

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And later in October, I got to visit a new (to me) country for the first time, Malta, where I was invited to present a major research paper I had been working on with my team and which had been made public at the end of September. During the autumn, I had numerous invitations to make public presentations of this work, and one such occasion was meeting of the European Community Trademark Association council in Malta. The main industry of the island is tourism, and the part where I stayed, St Julians, is impressive and ugly at the same time. This was the view from my hotel balcony:

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In November, I made my usual trip to Denmark to visit my father’s grave on the anniversary of his death.

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But I also enjoyed Copenhagen, as I always do, with visits to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and walks along the lakes in Østerbro, where my friend Beata lives.

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As part of my work, I have made many trips to Brussels during 2013. I enjoy the city and once in a while I get together with my cousin Nicole who lives close to the European quarter where I usually stay. During one of my visits in November, I thus walked through the Parc Cinquantennaire in the evening, rang Nicole’s doorbell, and to my delight  uncle Joseph from Le Mans was waiting inside! He had come to visit his daughter and he timed his visit so that he would see me as well. I had already seen him earlier in the year, but this was a total surprise. A delightful evening ensued.

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In late November, the first winter storm of the season hit Spain. In Alicante it never snows or freezes, but sometimes the winter comes close. Here is a view of the mountains from the beach in El Campello:

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November ended on a nice note. I was invited to give a talk at the University of Strasbourg, which gave me the chance to visit that city properly for the first time, and to meet my friends Philippe and Alice on their home turf.

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And back home, we finished the month by inviting some of our Spanish friends for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. My wife worked all day to prepare it, and had a very interested spectator most of the time.

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In early December, I had another “trip of a lifetime”, my first-ever visit to South Korea. Seoul turned out to be a fantastic, huge, incredibly vibrant city, uniting the modern and the traditional, as is often the case in East Asia.

The modernity was evident as soon as I checked into my hotel and went to use the toilet. This is the electronic control unit (and all I wanted to do was to flush…):

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But later that same evening, I found myself walking around the Kwangjang street market, eating delicious food, and making new friends:

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Of course, I was not in Seoul for pleasure; this was a business trip–I was part of the EU delegation to a meeting of the five largest trademark offices in the world, which this year was hosted by the Korean Intellectual Property Office.

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I have put together a substantial gallery of my Seoul pictures here.

The year ended at home in Alicante. It was a typical December, with some rain but also some nice days for cycling in the countryside:

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And finally, on December 30th I travelled to Poland to spend the New Year with my sister and brother-in-law. I flew to Dresden in eastern Germany, and they picked me up there. As soon as we arrived in their garage, which also serves as an extension of their pantry, we toasted my arrival:

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The next day was New Year’s Eve, and I prepared a drink called “Wściekły Pies”, or “Mad Dog”. The ingredients are vodka, sweet syrup, pepper, hot sauce and more vodka. As can be seen, the syrup collects at the bottom; the idea is to empty the glass in one gulp so that the sweetness at the end makes up for the pepper, hot sauce and vodka that precedes it:

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And on this boozy note, the year ended. Like 2012, it was a year of transition for our family. In 2012, Monica left home to attend university in Wales. This year, Moses finished university and crossed the ocean to begin his working life. We miss him but we are happy and proud of him too. Such is life. The nest is empty, but we still have each other and our four-legged companions:

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A week in Seoul

During the past 3 years, I have had the good fortune to visit three Asian countries: Japan in 2010, Taiwan in 2011, and, earlier this month, South Korea. I spent almost a week in Seoul, and while it was a business trip, there was plenty of free time to explore this magnificent city, my first ever visit there. I have put together my pictures in a gallery here, and a weekly blog of the trip is here. In this post, I just want to make a few observations.

Like Taipei or Tokyo, Seoul is a mix of modernity and tradition. What strikes the first-time visitor during the drive from Incheon International Airport to the centre of Seoul is the sheer scale of the city, and the energy that vibrates throughout. Once at the hotel, the modernity and luxury is on a level I rarely if ever see in the West. Here, for example, is the toilet control unit in my room:

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No handles to pull here; push the wrong button and god knows what might happen 😉

But underneath the modernity, one detects signs that South Korea is a country where just two generations ago people literally starved (as they still do in the socialist paradise in the northern half of the Korean peninsula). I don’t know if I am over-interpreting, but I noticed that disposable utensils are not used, the chopsticks are made of metal rather than wood, and the subway tickets are made of plastic and come with a deposit that is returned at the arrival station by disposing of the card in a special machine. All of these little things point to a society where one does not waste things.

As with most places, it is the people that matter. I found the Koreans to be at once formal, warm and friendly. On my first evening, I was wandering in the Kwangjang market, looking at all the amazing street food, when suddenly I was beckoned by a group of five men who were eating udong noodles in a spicy broth and drinking rice wine at one of the food stalls. They invited me to join them, just like that, and I spent the next hour sharing their food and drink and talking about families and other such things, all the time battling the language barriers, as their English was not that good, and my Korean is non-existent. This was probably one of the two events that made the greatest impression on me. Here are my newfound friends from Seoul:

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The second experience that made a deep impression was also in connection with food, but on the opposite end of the luxury scale. Our hosts, the Korean Intellectual Property Office, invited us to an 11-course dinner at a famous traditional restaurant, SamcheonGak. Before the meal, we were treated to a performance of pansori music. Pansori can perhaps be described as the Korean version of the Portuguese art of fado. The music consists of long ballads, sung by a single female performer, accompanied by a solitary drum. The beauty of the performance we witnessed and the emotions the singer poured out, were simply overwhelming. I did not look for recordings of this music because I think that it has this kind of impact only when enjoyed live.

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Korea has a troubled history, and it is fair to say that the last 50 years may well have been the best ever–for the southern half. In contrast to its big neighbours, Japan and China, it has never waged offensive war. Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 until 1945, and our guide told us that anti-Japanese sentiment is still widespread among the older generations. And one does not see many Japanese cars on the streets of Seoul.

Today, the enemy is of course North Korea, and it is not an idle threat. One gets the feeling of being in a country facing latent danger, with Seoul being only 50 km from the border. The security presence around the presidential palace and other government buildings is quite overwhelming, and the subway stations are all equipped with several cabinets full of gas masks. It is unclear whether this is motivated by the North Korean threat or by the 1995 attack on the Tokyo metro–probably both. It is worth remembering that officially, the Korean war has never ended. An armistice agreement was signed in 1953, but there is no peace treaty. I asked one of our guides about reunification, and she replied that younger people do not care about it, only the older generations who may have relatives on the other side or memories of a unified Korea.

A final observation: there is something deeply appealing about a country whose most revered ruler, King Sejong in the 15th century, is revered not for a conquest or winning some battle, but for having invented the Korean alphabet. His statue in central Seoul shows him sitting with a book, as opposed to the usual statues of kings on horseback, sword drawn.

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Dead Kennedys

The media are all agog with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Let me say this: I consider JFK to have been one of the truly mediocre presidents of my lifetime (I was born in 1960). His main achievements were: (1) he looked good on television; (2) he understood the value of the soundbite (“Ich bin ein Berliner”, “ask not what your country can do for you etc.”); and (3) he was married to a glamorous woman. None of this has much to do with being a good president.

JFK has become a mythical figure because of the dramatic manner of his death. But 50 years is enough distance to look at his record in an objective manner, without falling for the “mystique.” So, what did JFK actually accomplish during his 3 years in office? Let us start on the foreign policy front: he brought the world closer to nuclear war than any previous or subsequent president by leading the Soviets to miscalculate his intentions and place missiles in Cuba. He, not Johnson, escalated US involvement in Vietnam in 1961 and 1962. On the plus side, JFK held a good speech in Berlin in June 1963, but surely on balance his foreign policy must be considered vastly inferior to, say, Richard Nixon’s (opening to China) or Jimmy Carter’s (Camp David accord) and certainly to Ronald Reagan’s (victory in the Cold War).

On domestic policy, Kennedy was a rich Boston boy who was not particularly interested in the civil rights struggle of the day. It was his brother, Bobby, who was truly engaged in this. So I guess JFK gets credit here for appointing Bobby to be his Attorney General. But not much else. The civil rights struggle was led by others, and it was Johnson who pushed through the greatest social reform since the 1930s, the enactment of Medicare in 1965.

To me, Johnson is the genuinely tragic figure here. A man who was deeply committed to making the US a fairer and gentler society but who in the end was consumed by the war started by his predecessor–whom we so revere today, for no particular reason.

The assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June 1968 was a much greater tragedy from a historical point of view. Here, one can truly wonder, “what might have been.”

Leaving

“That is why a man leaves his father and mother…” Genesis 2:24

In August 1983, I left Denmark to begin a new life in the USA. I remember my parents were sad because I was moving so far away, but they were happy for me–I was getting married, and I was going to enter a PhD program in economics at a university over there. For me, at that time almost 23, there was much youthful exuberance, looking forward to starting my own life for real.

A few years later, our first child was born in Tampa, Florida: our son Moses. During his first 18 years of life he lived in four different countries. For his 18th birthday back in 2007, I put together a special web page for him. In the six years since turning 18, Moses has done great things: he has graduated with a degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Bath; he has worked for a year with Nestlé in Switzerland; he has taken up bodybuilding and can now bench press mind-boggling weights. In short, he has become a man. He has not lived with us since 2007, since he studied in another country, but of course he has visited us frequently, spending most of his vacations here. “His room” in the house was always there for him. This was still his home, albeit part-time.

But now, almost exactly 30 years after I left my Danish hometown, I am about to say goodbye to my son. Tomorrow morning I go to Cardiff with my daughter for a week, and when I return, Moses will have left for California, where he is going to start his working life on 3rd September. Today I experience the same emotions as my parents did 30 years ago. Of course Moses will visit us, and we will visit him…but it will be much less frequent. With the distance involved, visits will involve planning. It will no longer be just a question of a making a spur-of-the-moment decision to spend a couple of hundred Euro on an Easyjet ticket to Bristol. So yes. I am sad today. I am proud of Moses and I know he will succeed in his new endeavours, and I know that this is the normal course of life, as already the people who wrote the Bible knew, but still…there is sadness. This, too, is normal and inevitable.

Whatever happens, I want my son to know (and he knows) that his room will still be here for him. Always.

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A week with Norwegian Cruise Lines

This week, I have been on the first cruise of my life, a circular route in the western Mediterranean starting in Barcelona, stopping at Naples, Civitavecchia (Rome), Livorno (Pisa/Florence), Marseille, Palma de Mallorca and back to Barcelona aboard the Norwegian Epic.

I have always been sceptical about the idea of a cruise, for the same reason that I avoid package tours: I like flexibility when travelling, and I do not like others to decide what I shall do when. My preferred holiday is a long car trip without too many reservations, just a general itinerary allowing for longer stops at places which I enjoy and leaving early from places which I do not enjoy. Obviously, a cruise is the complete opposite to this. You arrive at a port early in the morning (on this cruise it is usually 7 a.m.) and have to be back onboard by 6:30 p.m. No ifs and buts about that. If you miss the ship, I suppose you make your way overland to the next port and re-embark there. Not impossible but certainly inconvenient and expensive. So I shall not be trying that.

What follows are some random observations about this cruising experience. As I write this, I am still on the ship, docked in Palma de Mallorca. So these are really fresh impressions while the cruise is under way. Below, I list some features of the cruising experience that I like and some that I dislike.

So, what did I LIKE about the cruise?

The ship is very impressive. I have been on many ferries in my life, but never on a vessel of this size. The Norwegian Epic is certainly something to behold. The ship is registered in the Bahamas, as most such ships are, but Norwegian Cruise Lines is an American company and so all prices below are in dollars.

The gym onboard is nice, and I have used it every day. As far as I can tell, the equipment is better than in the gym I go to back home. And there is no extra charge to use it. But, as opposed to most other gyms I have ever visited, there is no water faucet—if you do not bring your own water, you can either make yourself look ridiculous by attempting to fill your bottle from the drinking fountain, or buy a bottle from the machine for $2. This is part of a broader pattern (see below under DISLIKES).

The food is actually surprisingly good, and you can get something to eat at any time. Just avoid the processed items like sausages which clearly fall in the “mystery meat” category. Also, the bread, like in the US, is pretty tasteless, no matter which variety you take. But those are minor points. On balance, it is possible to eat well without spending extra money.

The places we go to. Obviously, if you are sailing several thousand people around the Mediterranean, you will stop at places most people want to see. So on this cruise Rome and Florence were probably the highlights for most people, although I have particularly enjoyed Naples and Marseille, two cities I had never visited before.

The staff, seemingly with a heavy representation of Filipinos, are very attentive and seem genuinely friendly, not the fake friendliness one often encounters in the US service industry. During our weeklong stay on the ship, the same person is looking after our cabin, we know his name, and can ask for anything at any time, obviously within reason.

And now, the things I DISLIKE or hate. Here, I will not speak of things that I should know or expect, such as the inherent lack of flexbility I discussed at the beginning. I focus on things which were an unpleasant surprise or otherwise left a bad taste in my mouth.

The relentless attempts to get more money from me. When you watch TV commercials for cruises, one the main selling points is that “everything” is included. Once onboard, you quickly discover that this is, frankly, a lie. Firstly, there are the hidden charges: a $12 per day per person “service fee” supposedly in lieu of tipping. On a 7-day cruise for a family of four, this adds up to $336, not a trivial amount. Despite this, when you buy something at a bar, the slip you sign includes a space for adding a tip, so clearly some level of tipping is still expected, or at least hoped for, despite the presence of this service charge. Secondly, of the many restaurants on the ship, only four are included in the price. The rest either have a cover charge of $15-$30 per person or are a la carte. Of course, most people use the restaurants that are included in the fare, and the resulting queues rival what I recall from my childhood in Communist Poland. Thirdly, many other activities also have to be paid for separately, and often the prices are very difficult to find out. For example, at the gym there is a sign-up sheet for some seminar on detox. I actually considered it, since I am treating this week as a detox week (no alcohol). But the price of this seminar is not mentioned anywhere. At the bottom of the sheet, in small print, it says “for your convenience, an 18% service charge will be added”. For my convenience! – I will be fleeced an additional 18% of some unknown amount. Convenient indeed. And it goes on and on and on. If you bring your own wine onboard, you have to pay a corkage fee of $15 per bottle even if you only consume it in your cabin. And Norwegian WILL find your bottles, because all baggage is x-rayed like in an airport, but with the discovery of bottles rather than bombs being the primary objective.

Scarcity of information about the ports of call. Every day, a 6-8 page brochure is distributed to all cabins, listing all the events the following day (without prices, of course). But as far as information about the place where we would be stopping, almost nothing beyond the hour of arrival and departure and some very basic information about the city (“a port city with a population of 160,000…”). No information about what to do and see, how to get around and so on. Clearly, the preferred manner (from the cruise line’s point of view) to see the port cities is to take a tour arranged by Norwegian. You do not make much money off independent travellers…

Being treated like children. This is a ship, a place where many people are squeezed together for several days. So yes, infectious disease must be a concern. Yet, I really resent being almost forced to allow my hands to be sprayed with disinfectant when entering a restaurant, the implication being that I am too stupid or too childish to wash my hands when needed. The written instructions you get every day contain a wonderful phrase about avoiding shaking hands with the locals—yes, indeed, we would not want those horrible Spanish or Italian or French germs onboard our pristine boat. In the toilets, signs above the handwash admonish me to “wash your hands often.” I think that, at the age of 52, I do not need to be told this.

The cheesiness of it all. When we disembarked in Naples, we were ambushed on the quay by a guy holding a tray with a picture of a pizza to have our picture taken; when arriving in Civitavecchia, it was a guy dressed up as a Roman legionnaire. At dinner, a photographer comes to your table to offer to take a picture. Of course, this is all part of the money-harvesting ethos of the company: you can buy your pictures at rather inflated prices at the end of the cruise.

The ersatz nature of many aspects of the cruise. The fake Irish pub, the show where you can listen to a fake Tom Jones or Tina Turner…the best musicians are those like the jazz piano player in the bar who genuinely seemed to enjoy himself rather than doing a put-on job. But the vast majority of the remaining entertainment is of the pretend variety.

The quality and price of the internet. Wifi is available onboard, at slow speeds and exorbitant prices, so the only realistic options is to use your mobile phone connectivity when close enough to land to pick up the 3G signal. If a low-cost airline that I frequently fly with can offer FREE wifi on its planes, I don’t see why a cruise ship cannot offer something similar.

And finally…the coffee. This is an American ship, albeit with a Bahamas registration, and the coffee is similar to what you might get at a 7-11 store along Interstate 95 in the middle of the night. Only to be used if truly desperate. Fortunately, on this cruise the stops are in places where proper coffee can be obtained on land, but I would dread taking a cruise with those guys to, say, the Norwegian fjords or Alaska.

So, would I recommend a cruise? That is entirely dependent on your tastes in entertainment and your willingness to spend a week or more with a schedule decided for you by others. So, no recommendation as to whether or not to go. But if you go, then I would suggest the following precautions. Some of these tips are specific to the ship I travelled on, but others are applicable to most cruise lines.

  • Bring your own wine. Despite the $15 corkage fee, you will save a lot. The wine list on the ship is not bad but the prices of the wine are truly exorbitant. Any good wine will set you back at least $50 and often more than $100.
  • Funny enough, cocktails are cheap: mixed drinks are generally between $6 and $10 which is very reasonable considering the good quality and quantity of the liquor used. So do not try to sneak a bottle of your favourite whisky on board—it will be confiscated anyway, only wine is allowed in luggage (you will get your hooch back at the end of the cruise).
  • The best place to buy Coke and other soft drinks is the machine in the gym: $2 for a ½ liter bottle.
  • If you go for dinner to a sit-down restaurant (as opposed to the buffet), go early, no later than 8:30 p.m. After that, the queues are horrendous.
  • Stay away from the sausages in the buffet. They are nasty. In general, if you are watching your diet, life on a cruise ship can be difficult. Food is plentiful, and because you have already paid for it through the fare so that it is “free” at the point of consumption, there is the temptation to eat more than you would on land. This is reinforced by the inherent boredom of spending a lot of time at sea, particularly during the initial crossing from Barcelona to Naples.
  • Do your research on the ports before the cruise, because it is difficult to get information on board, partly because the cruise line does not provide much and partly because of the poor availability of the Internet. The best ports are those where you can walk to the centre of town from the ship, or, like Naples, where there is a free shuttle bus provided by the port authority. At the other extreme are places like Livorno or Marseille where the ship docks so far away from civilisation that taking the bus provided by the cruise line, at $12 per person round trip, is the only option.
  • Beware of “helpful” strangers. Especially in Italy, but also in other countries (e.g. Greece) it is very common for hustlers to hang around cruise terminals and railway stations to offer taxi rides, guided tours of dubious quality and other such services to hapless visitors, at exorbitant prices. Sometimes these people dress alike to, for example, local railway employees and approach you when you are queuing to buy a ticket, offering to help. Just ignore them. If you use their “services”, you will in most cases not be victim of a crime, but you WILL be ripped off.
  • Last and most important: watch your wallet on the ship, figuratively speaking. It is deceptively easy to spend money using your key card, and the cruise line encourages you to do so, every step of the way.
The ship

The ship

Early morning, Deck 15 being prepared for the day

Early morning, Deck 15 being prepared for the day

Disco on Deck 15

Disco on Deck 15

Sunset over the Mediterranean

Sunset over the Mediterranean

The jazz pianist--he was the  Real Deal

The jazz pianist–he was the Real Deal

Something cute: a towel folded to look like a monkey. An amusing touch by the staff.

Something cute: a towel folded to look like a monkey. An amusing touch by the staff.

But which hand?

But which hand–left or right?

University of Florida = a sad joke

I received a PhD in economics from the University of Florida in 1991, having attended graduate school there full time from 1984 to 1987, and then written the dissertation while working in Tampa and later New Jersey. That day in April 1991, when I successfully defended my dissertation was a very happy and proud one.

The Department of Economics at UF was outstanding at that time. The chairman of my dissertation committee was Professor G.S. Maddala, one of the fathers of modern econometrics. Other outstanding faculty included Dr. Yasushi Toda, my main advisor, and people like Sanford Berg, the founder of the Public Utility Research Center, and David Denslow, one of the greatest teachers I have ever come across, anywhere. The department was vibrant, with more than 30 faculty, and with many graduate students from all over the world.

During those years, it was clear that while the most important academic discipline at UF was football, closely followed by basketball, there was a certain determination that the university should also excel in more bookish pursuits.

No more.

This past week I learned that the PhD program from which I had graduated 22 years ago has effectively been abolished, accepting no new students in 2013. The ones already in the program will be able to complete their degrees, assuming of course that the few remaining faculty (11 at this point) will be able to support them. The empty suit who currently runs the Warrington College of Business Administration, of which the department is a part, states: “This strategy is consistent with the college’s strategy of downsizing to better service the development needs of students, faculty and staff.” A management consultant in one of Dilbert’s strips could not have said it better.

By happy coincidence, during this very week I have received not one, but two e-mails from the UF Alumni Association (the membership of which I shall shortly be resigning). The first one, dated 14 June 2013, shares joyous news:

Hello, Alumni and Friends,

I wanted to share with you the good news from the legislative session as reported by UF Board of Trustees Chair C. David Brown.  The University of Florida (UF) is one step closer to becoming one of the top ten public universities in the nation – Go Gators! 

Please know that the UF Alumni Association (UFAA) is always here to fuel your connection to the university and your quest for excellence.  Stay connected atwww.ufalumni.ufl.edu!

Warm regards and Go Gators,

Danita D. Nias
Danita D. Nias, Life Member
Executive Director & Sr. Associate Vice President
University of Florida Alumni Association 


FROM THE DESK OF CHAIRMAN DAVID BROWN


Date:  June 13, 2013

To: University of Florida friends and family

I am writing to share with you some very exciting news about the University of Florida.

After years of managing through budget cuts and a tough economy, our university is at the threshold of a new era of growth, innovation and excellence.  This opportunity comes to us thanks to a bill passed by the Florida Legislature and signed by Governor Rick Scott that designates the University of Florida as a preeminent university and gives us funding to help take UF to the top ten of the nation’s public universities. 

We shouldn’t underestimate the significance of this action. 

The alumni and supporters of the University of Florida for years have sought recognition of UF’s flagship status and the resources necessary to elevate the prominence of our university.  We have come close several times but never succeeded until now.

Much of the credit for these advances is due to President Bernie Machen.   It is his leadership that has brought us to where we are today.

During last week’s annual Board of Trustees retreat, Bernie spoke of his vision for a top ten university and gave us a roadmap for how he intends to get there.  This is what he told us:

  • The university has identified criteria for attaining top ten status that is composed of five key metrics –student admissions, student success, faculty, value and research and technology transfer.
  • The greatest area of opportunity relates to faculty.  UF needs to hire more new and accomplished faculty in targeted areas.
  • UF also needs to support and enhance our research activities in several key areas, including:
  • Genetics and genomics
  • Emerging pathogens
  • Neurosciences
  • Food security and safety
  • Domestic and national security
  • Nutrition and obesity
  • Managing manmade and natural disasters
  • Autonomous systems
  • Next generation manufacturing
  • Big data

The preeminence bill also creates an institute for online learning that will offer baccalaureate degree programs.  The Legislature recognized the excellence of the University of Florida and our strong brand and designated UF as the home of this institute.  Through it, we will offer fully online degrees to students who meet all existing UF admission criteria.  However, these students will not need to attend classes on campus.

In recognition of President Machen’s leadership, the Board of Trustees last week approved a contract extension that will keep him in office until December 2014.  We are gratified he has agreed to stay on and guide us during this period of extraordinary opportunity.  He is best positioned to do this considering his record over the past ten years.  Among Bernie’s most significant accomplishments are:

  • Growing faculty research funding from $470 million in 2003-04 to more than $644 million in the most recent fiscal year.
  • Creating Innovation Square, a 40-acre public-private partnership that has nurtured more than two dozen startups, attracted three major companies and generated hundreds of new jobs.
  • Bringing Shands Hospital and the UF Health Science Center together in a close partnership recently renamed UF Health.
  • Spearheading the construction of more than a dozen major new research, student life, innovation and other facilities, from the Cancer and Genetics Research Building to the Southwest Recreation Center to the Florida Innovation Hub.
  • Leading UF’s seven-year capital campaign, completed last year after raising more than $1.7 billion – one of the leading such campaigns at public universities nationwide.
  • Creating the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship program that has enabled more than 2,600 low-income students to attend UF.
  • Overseeing significant improvement in the quality of student applicants to UF and their four-year graduation rates.
  • Launching the university-wide sustainability initiative to make UF one of the greenest public universities in the country.
  • Leading a tremendous athletics program, with the Florida Gators winning 12 national titles during his tenure.

After being on campus last week, I can tell you there is an unmistakable aura of optimism, excitement and momentum about UF’s future.  We have good reason to be proud of our university and stand ready to see it achieve new heights of accomplishment.

The whole Gator Nation is appreciative that President Machen has made a commitment to stay on and lead us through this exciting time.

 

Best Regards,
C. David Brown II
Chairman, UF Board of Trustees

The second one is even more comical in light of current events. It arrived in my inbox yesterday, with the subject “Wear Your Gator Pride #Tebow5.” Inside, it goes on to say the following:

Go Gators!

I’m sure you, like the rest of us in the heart of the Gator Nation, were thrilled to hear the news that Tim Tebow was signed by the New England Patriots.  We are so proud of Tim and his indomitable Gator spirit! 

Tim Tebow JerseyAs a small token of our appreciation for your membership in the UF Alumni Association (UFAA), we are pleased to offer you a $10.00 discount per single purchase of an official, adult size Tim Tebow jersey (pictured).  Use your membership number to login to the “Members Only” section of the UFAA website and receive the redemption code.  Get your jerseys at the Patriots ProShop. Act now, as this offer is only valid for 10 days. 

Thank you for being counted!  The importance of all Gators being counted through their affiliation with the UFAA grows as this great university and its alumni association strives to climb the ranks into the nation’s top ten public universities.   For Gators that are not yet members of the UFAA and wish to be counted, join now to receive your official membership number.

It’s time to show Tim that the magnitude of the Gator Nation is behind him all the way!  Please join us in cheering him on during this phase of his NFL journey. 

Danita D. Nias
Danita D. Nias, Life Member
Executive Director & Sr. Associate Vice President
University of Florida Alumni Association

I find this latest message particularly illuminating, as it shows what really matters at the University of Florida. We are raising tons of money, spending it on new buildings and what not, our Christian ex-quarterback is no longer unemployed, so who cares about some PhD program?

Fortunately, I have degrees from a couple of other universities, where the tail does not wag the dog. And since I am now into my third decade of full-time work, the debasement of the degree I earned back in 1991 is not going to affect my career. But I feel sorry for the 27 victims trapped in the current “PhD program” and the handful of faculty members who are left to pick up the pieces.

I am no longer a Gator.