American Idol Lovefest Top 9: I miss Simon Cowell

In the absence of “Mr. Nasty” Simon Cowell, or maybe just due to overly impressionable natures of J.Lo and “Grandma Tyler”, American Idol‘s Season 10 has turned into a lovefest I find hardly bearable to watch.

Judges just looooove everybody and heavily overpraise every single performance. I have not heard a word of criticism since Top 13. OK, the remaining contestants are talented, but they aren’t stars yet: they still need guidance, advice, and, yes, constructive criticism. Grandma Tyler has proven absolutely useless as a judge as he invariably renders each and every performance “beautiful. amazing”. J.Lo occasionally comes up with bizarre comments about “stage presence”, and Randy’s harshest criticism is, “I wasn’t jumping up and down”. Yawn. Do they even need the viewers on that little lovefest formerly known as American Idol, the biggest singing competition?..

So after the entire Casey shocker two weeks ago (Casey in the bottom three! Judges save him! He looks like he’s not feeling well!), last week’s Elton John performance show started the tradition of massacring all girls due to massive dominance of teenage girls in the voting audience, sending Naima Adedapo and Thia Megia home. Tonight was Rock-n-Roll week. I’m rating the Top 9 performances.

Jacob Lusk did Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror, which, while good, was not anything outstanding; I would say the “Jacob power” was lacking. However, the judges had their usual response: “That was beautiful” (Grandma Tyler), “Perfect on every level” (J.Lo), “I’m so proud of you” (Randy).

Haley Reinhart caved in to the judges’ pressure and did Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart. OK, I’ve got to give it to the judges this time: Janis and the bluesy thing altogether is what Haley should be doing, and she did do a great job (although if I were a judge, I’d point out that she could have had a little bit more energy and maybe hit that super-high note on that “yeaaaa-yeaaah”, like in the original). Still, Haley (along with Casey) is by far my favorite.

Casey Abrams did Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain playing standup base. While I never lack energy from Casey (which is great), this performance, in a little bit of a retrospect, was a bit “forgettable”, as Simon Cowell would say. An illustration? I just forgot to write about it for this post and only noticed it when I counted the paragraphs and realized I had missed one contestant.

Aretha Franklin’s Natural Woman finally gave something vocally challenging for Lauren Alaina to sing. While she did do a good job, I’ve been missing some passion and energy from her several weeks now.

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State tenders and Navalny’s crusades

Another repost of something I’ve done for work (hence the less frank tone of the post, although I added some notes in italics in parentheses).

On March 5, the Ministry of Economic Development published the conceptual framework of the draft federal law On the Federal Contract System, a proposed conceptual framework to replace the current On State Tenders law  (Law 94-FZ), which was adopted in 2005 but has been repeatedly amended since. The new law seeks to standardize, systematize, and centralize the current law, as well as to soften some provisions that have been viewed as overly rigid and unfair toward honest bidders.

The current state tenders law requires that a rigid procedure be used for all state procurements, a volume that totaled 5 trillion rubles ($176.7 billion) in 2010.  To do so, the conceptual framework proposes extending the list of types of state tenders by including open as well as closed two-phase tenders, online auctions, one-phase tenders with preliminary qualification selection, and “competitive negotiations.” Aleksandr Shamrin, pro-rector of the Higher School of Economics (which provided expertise and research for the new law) noted that the conception is premised on the “presumption of honesty of the customer,” and argued that the proposed law would not only reduce corruption, but also increase quality of service and save budget funds.

However, the conceptual framework and especially its “presumption of honesty of the customer” have drawn strong criticism from representatives of Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, who argued that, if one assumes such honesty on the part of all customers, no state procurement bill is needed at all, as its functions would be fulfilled by the Civil Code. The Gaidar Institute representatives went on to argue that it is the rigid part of the current state tenders law that helps fight corruption and prevent economic abuses during the state tender process.

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Kremlinology vs. sociology of elites

Today I attended another Kennan Institute event: Reassessing Russia’s Decision Making Community: Intra-elite Conflicts, Political and Business Networks, and Ideological Constructions, with Marlene Laruelle, Senior Research Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Studies Program, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, and former Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center.

Below is my summary of the event, which sounds a bit formal – because it was written for work purposes – but which I wanted to share anyway, because this brave Frenchwoman said interesting things with cute French accent. Seriously though, I really enjoyed this event because I liked how she wrapped the study of the Russian political elite in philosophical rhetoric (she said “narrative” like 15 times, and I loved it every single time). (Sadly, there is almost no philosophy left in my notes, so just add the word “narrative” as you see fit. Just kidding.)

Ms. Laruelle shared her perspective on the Russian decision-making community. She pointed out that the topic is especially important now as we are nearing the 2012 presidential elections in Russia. Ms. Laruelle started by noting that the analysis of Russia’s ruling elite, collectively called “the Kremlin”, in terms of clans is widespread; however, she argued, such analysis tends to be a bit one-sided and overly “black-and-white”, whereas a more comprehensive, nuanced framework is needed.

Instead of the so-called “Kremlinology”, or the analysis of Russia’s decision-making community in terms of clans, Ms. Laruelle proposed an approach called “sociology of elites”. One of the problems with “Kremlinology”, Ms. Laruelle argued, is that such analysis often ascribes to political personas certain goals that might not be their goals in reality, which makes assessing the behaviour of such personas reactive instead of proactive. The main features of “sociology of elites”, according to Ms. Laruelle, are as follows:

  • Flexibility, meaning that the predominant structure of the decision-making community is comprised not of clans, but rather of networks that are intertwined and interrelated;
  • Informality, which underscores the importance of informal rather than formal relationships, such as solidarity of education, solidarity of region, economic interest, or spousal relations, all of which often determine the placement of individuals in certain networks;
  • Multiplicity, which means that one person can belong to several networks at once;
  • Uncertainty, which means that the lines of division between networks are unknown.

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“Khodorkovsky. Pipes/Corpses”: preparations for third YUKOS trial begin?

A curious film surfaced on the Internet recently. It is called Khodorkovsky. Pipes/Corpses (it’s a mediocre wordplay: in Russian, the word “pipes” (truby) and the word “corpses” (trupy) only differ by one letter) and it was made by a journalist Andrey Karaulov, who hosted a show called “Moment of Truth” (Moment Istiny) on one of Russian central channels. Khodorkovsky. Pipes/Corpses claims that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of oil corporation YUKOS and once-richest man in Russia, who has been in prison since 2003 on charges of tax evasion and embezzlement, is a serial killer guilty of at least four murders and several attempted murders. Here is the film itself (in Russian):

I have to say that the film feels muddled and confusing because of the lack of clarity or any kind of summarization. Accompanied by waltz and classical music, Karaulov’s sinister voice starts by proclaiming that he, Karaulov, was very “ashamed” to make this film – because, Karaulov says, “everything in it is true”. Karaulov repeats this phrase two or three times, but that’s exactly how my confusion began: I’m not sure why anybody would be ashamed to make a movie that is completely truthful. Shouldn’t uncovering shameful deeds (if that, in fact, is what the film does) be a source of some kind of journalist pride?.. Oh well.

Anyway, Karaulov claims that he shot an episode of his show, “Moment of Truth”, dedicated to Khodorkovsky-orchestrated murders in 2005, but the episode was banned from being aired by Leonid Nevzlin, former State Duma member from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), who is now an Israeli citizen. (In early 2000s, Khodorkovsky sponsored opposition political parties, including CPRF, and finally signaled his own intent to go into politics; Putin’s desire to keep Khodorkovsky out of the way is now widely perceived as the real reason behind Khodorkovsky’s nominally business-related charges.)

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Rating American Idol Top 12 performances

Tonight American Idol Top 12 contestants sang songs from the year they were born. I’m rating those performances.

1. Naima Adedapo, What’s Love Got To Do With It by Tina Turner:  As the judges rightly said, it was pitchy and all over the place vocally. In a signing competition, that’s a big deal, and not in Naima’s favor.

2. Paul McDonald, That’s Why They Call It The Blues by Elton John:  Another terrible overrated performance. You could have just as well put a goat on the stage – would have been the same vocally.

3. Thia Megia, Colors Of the Wind by Vanessa Williams:  Thia does have a great sound to her voice, but seriously, enough with the ballads already; it is getting boring.

4. James Durbin, I’ll Be There For You by Bon Jovi:  I’ve loved pretty much everything James has done so far, and this week wasn’t an exception. Maybe a little less running around the stage would be nice so that he could concentrate on the vocals a little more. But I love how he makes every song his own and that he is the only rocker there, yet he does not sound karaoke, like last season’s Casey often did.

5. Haley Reinhart, Whatever You Want From Me by Whitney Houston:  It’s tough to sing Whitney Houston, and sure enough, Haley sounded pitchy. However, I still like Haley and disagree with Randy’s constant complaining about the wide range of her musical tastes.

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10 Most Innovative Companies in Russia

Randomly saw a list of the 10 “most innovative” companies in Russia on Fast Company website. Here are the winners:

  1. Yandex, Internet search company;
  2. Kaspersky Lab, most known for its Internet antivirus program;
  3. ABBYY, maker of text recognition and linguistics technology, including a well-known ABBYY Lingvo dictionary;
  4. Rosnano, state project in nanotechnology;
  5. Rosatom, state nuclear energy corporation;
  6. M2M Telematics, maker of navigation technology and, as my source points out, “Russia’s answer to the U.S. Global Positioning System;
  7. Optogan, maker of energy-efficient lighting technology;
  8. Mikron, maker of smart cards and subsidiary of larger state-controlled company Sitronics;
  9. NPO Saturn, maker of gas-turbine technology, nominated by Fast Company for advancing military aviation;
  10. Lukoil, Russian oil company whose gas stations you can actually see in some places across the U.S., nominated by Fast Company for investing in research and development (R&D).

Fast Company also has a list of world’s most innovative companies-2011 (isn’t it too early to give out awards for 2001 when we’re only in the third month of 2011?), headed, not surprisingly by Apple. There is a whole bunch of companies I don’t know on that list, but, interestingly, 11th position is occupied by Trader Joe’s – “for vaulting past Whole Foods to become America’s favorite organic grocer”.

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Murder of Russian journalists

A while ago, on February 28th, I attended Kennan Institute event, Killed Without Consequence: Why the Murder of Russian Journalists Matters Beyond Russia, with Nina Ognianova, Program Coordinator, Europe and Central Asia, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The talk was based on a September 2009 CPJ report, Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia.

In the report, CPJ focuses on the deaths of 17 journalists that were killed in 2000-2009. Here they are:

After the report was finished, two more journalists were killed, including Natalia Estemirova in July 2009.

In November 2010, Kommersant journalist Oleg Kashin was severely beaten has has since recovered.

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Dress code for women in Chechnya

Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday released a 40-page report called You Dress According to Their Rules: Enforcement of an Islamic Dress Code for Women in Chechnya. (Full PDF version of the report can be downloaded here.)

It’s about time for such a report. I’ve been loosely following the situation in Chechnya since Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov called for stricter dress code enforcement and paintball attacks by police officers on women without headscarves on the streets of Chechnya’s capital Grozny started in mid-2010. Even I, a known sceptic when it comes to the Russian government, am amazed at the federal government’s willingness to look through their fingers at Kadyrov’s openly unlawful and unconstitutional initiatives in return to the superficial peace in the republic. Indeed, Kadyrov’s dress code frenzy contradicts everything there is: the Russian Constitution, which Chechnya is bound by and which explicitly provides for the freedom of conscience, expression and religion; the Chechen Constitution (!); and Russia’s international obligations. Not to mention that enforcing this bullshit dress code through harassment, physical violence and threats toward women is just unacceptable.

Kadyrov started his “virtue campaign” (meaning that he started telling women to dress more modestly in accordance with the Sharia law, thus appealing to their “virtues”) as early as 2006. In HRW report’s words: “…Kadyrov has made the ““virtue campaign”” for women a policy priority since 2006. He made numerous public statements, including on Chechen television, which appears to be under his control, regarding the need for women to adhere to ““modesty laws,”” by, among other things, wearing a headscarf and following men’’s orders. He has described women as men’’s ““property”” and publicly condoned honor killings.” (p. 2)

By fall of 2007, Kadyrov announced that women employed by state institutions should wear headscarves to work. Natalia Estemirova, Grozny-based journalist and human rights advocate, wrote about it critically (in Russian) in October 2007, and repeatedly criticized the policy in the media. In July  2009, Estemirova was kidnapped and found dead the next day; the HRW report on  dress code for women in Chechnya is dedicated to her memory.

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Civilian casualties in the North Caucasus

Via Vladimir Milov:

Number of civilian casualties (non-combatant deaths) per 100,000 people in 2010: Iraq, Ingushetia, Afghanistan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Dagestan, and Russia’s North Caucasus as a whole

So, Ingushetia (part of Russia’s North Caucasus Federal District) nears Iraq in number of civilian casualties: 12.6 compared to 12.9, respectively, and it actually has more non-combatant deaths than Afghanistan (8.5).

Caucasus Knot (Kavkaz Usel) article, used by Russian opposition leader Vladimir Milov as the source for Russia’s North Caucasus data, says that in real numbers, Dagestan leads 2010 civilian casualties with 78, followed by 40 in Ingushetia, 31 in Kabardino-Balkaria, 20 in North Ossetia, and 3 in Chechnya and Stavropol Territory, for a total of 180 civilian casualties in Russia’s North Caucasus in 2010. (My understanding is that numbers in the graph are a result of comparing the number of civilian deaths to the number of people living in the region.)

Thus, somewhat paradoxically (although not really surprisingly), Chechnya does not have that many civilian casualties anymore, because the violence from Chechnya has spilled to the neighboring Dagestan and Ingushetia.

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Rating American Idol Top 13 Performances

American Idol‘s Top 13 performed tonight, singing songs by their idols. I’m rating those performances.

Lauren Alaina, Any Man of Mine by Shania Twain:  Way too laid-back. I want to be blown away, not just watch Lauren “have a good time” on stage. She does have one of the biggest voices this season – it’s time to really use it! I did like that judges were honest and finally said something except “you’re so amazing, we love you, that was beautiful”.

Casey Abrams, With a Little Help from My Friends by Joe Cocker:  I love this guy. He’s so genuine, every song sounds great, and also the entire song sounds like a climax.

Ashthon Jones, When You Tell Me that You Love Me by Diana Ross:  Oftentimes she sounds pitchy and screamy to me, and this song wasn’t an exception. I don’t get what Randy sees in her, and yet he was obviously the one who got her in Top 13 with the “wild card”.

Paul McDonald, Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams:  Terrible! This guy really annoys me. I’m all for unique indie artists, but he’s just not one of them. He sounds like a cat and looks like a drug addict. Please America, vote him off soon.

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