Weekly insights into our crazy world.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Evo in better days.

The dream is over for Bolivian president EVO MORALES.  Five and a half years ago, he was a national hero...the first person with indigenous blood to hold the nation's highest office.  "The people are finally in power," he famously proclaimed.  After the election, MORALES continued to impress.  He kept his ambitious campaign promise and nationalized the lucrative the natural gas industry.  Next, he turned to foreign policy and shored up relationships with other South American states.  His alliance with HUGO CHAVEZ and Venezuela helped finance public work projects.  His friendship with Brazilian president LULA DA SILVA helped erase decades of dispute.  Heck, EVO was so successful he was rumored to win the Nobel Peace Prize!  He won re-election in 2009 by a landslide.

HOWEVER...things are quite different for Evo today.  Over the weekend, Morales appeared disheveled and distressed at a press conference.  He announced he was bowing to public pressure and halting construction of the new trans-Amazon highway.  "This is governing by obeying the people," he explained.  It's true...a group of highly motivated protesters had stolen the hearts of Bolivians away from their once-savior.  Here's how: Two months ago a thousand-or-so Amazonian Indians began a 370 mile march from their home to the capital.  The difference in altitude from Trinidad (in the lowland jungles) to La Paz (the world's highest capital) is 13,000 feet.  Many walked the entire distance barefoot.  Along the way, they spoke of the deforestation to rain forest the highway would bring.  They also talked about the inevitable human development a four-lane highway brings.  With daily news coverage of the march, by the time the protesters reached the streets of La Paz, they were hailed as heroes!

The march from the jungles to the mountains.
All of which put Morales in a very sticky situation.  Many Bolivians accused him of not being true to his roots.   How could the nation's first native president build a road through a nature reserve? (C'mon...you know the answer: MONEY!) Indeed, the highway is financed entirely by Brazil.  It would provide a superior route not only to Brazil but also to Chile's Pacific ports as well.  This would make it much easier for everyone to get their natural resources to China.  In short, Bolivia would be able to conduct commerce quicker and cheaper, without investing a peso to build the road.  It appeared to be what every politician dreams of: A Win-Win situation.

The only thing that stood in the way of progress was the 15,000 indigenous folks who happened to live in the distant Amazonian province.  Since this is such a small population, Morales assumed the five million Quechua and Aymara peoples...who currently hold power...wouldn't care and see the greater good of the highway.  He was wrong.  The highland folks showed solidarity for the lowlanders and came out in force.  All week long, the streets of the capital have been filled with demonstrators. And it only gets worse for Morales.   Not only did he anger his own support base, but the Brazilians as well...they were quite eager to build.  Pobracito Evo! Ultimately, the situation boils down to the same issue facing most developing nations on the globe: How can one export raw materials to industrial nations without getting ripped off and destroying your own lands?

This is a question Morales is having trouble answering.  It takes a delicate balance to achieve industry in a rain forest.  Unfortunately, Evo was anything but gentle in his approach to the problem.  Two months ago, when the protest first began, he thundered to the media: "Whether they like it or not...We will build that road."  What happened to the humble subsistence farmer?  It seems six years of dining on caviar in palaces worldwide has made hm a bit arrogant.  Then again...maybe Evo has learned a thing or two from other politicians.  He may be eating crow today but the rumor is he is already secretly planning a new route for the highway.  This one takes a lot longer to drive, but at least it doesn't go through any silly National Parks!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011



All hell broke lose at the SCRABBLE CHAMPIONSHIPS at the Warsaw Hilton yesterday!  Tempers began to flare during a heated late-round match-up.   The favorite, ED MARTIN (an IT guy from London), was barely beating his opponent CHOLLAPAT ITTHI-AREE (an uber-nerd from Bangkok).  Suddenly, after his opponent made some curious moves, the Thai player became enraged!  A tournament official was summoned and listened to his demands.   Next...he must have bust up laughing...after what he had heard.  Chollapat wanted his opponent taken to the restroom and strip-searched.  Why?  Chollapat explained: "Because he is hiding the 'G' tile in his pants!"

After some consultation, cooler heads prevailed.  A new 'G' tile was inserted into the bag and the game continued without incident. (Meaning: No one took their clothes off!) By a slim, one point margin, the Brit hung on and managed the win.  Now...when this story first broke...we here at the DUNER BLOG were barraged with questions.  What is the Warsaw Hilton like?  Can one wager on Scrabble tournaments?  How would hiding the 'G' tile help you win?  Fortunately, we decided not to answer any of these questions, and will instead focus on the more obvious inquiry: What the heck is Competitive Scrabble all about anyhow?

After further investigation, we determined that SCRABBLE isn't just for Mom and Aunt Ruth anymore. So...if you think you've got what it takes to take your game to the next level...here's what you've gotta do the become a Scrabble Champ.  First, you must register with the NASPA (North American Scrabble Player's Association).  Then you must join a sanctioned club.  (Casual clubs cannot send players to competitions).  Then, once you've beaten everyone in your club, you advance to a local, then regional, then the National Championship.  The top ten are automatically qualified for a 'Place in Poland'  at WESPA (World English Scrabble Players Association) World Championships.  Sweet!

Now that you now how to get the gold, let's also make sure you know the rules.  In doing research, we here at the DUNER BLOG came across hundreds of pages of intricate ordinances and statuettes, but...for the sake of brevity...here are a few:  First of all, think quick! Each player is only given 25 minutes for the entire game.  If you exceed this allotment, you will be penalized 10 points for each extra minute. Also, in Competitive Scrabble, you can only use plastic tiles...not the wooden ones.  This eliminates the illegal act of 'braille-ing,' when one feels the tiles with the finger tips in hopes of finding a blank one.  Finally, tracking..or counting...of tiles is allowed.  Whew!

Nigel (Second from left) with champions from other age divisions.
Anyhow...back to last weekend's big tournament in Poland.  After his narrow win over the insane Thai dude, ED MARTIN was ousted and New Zealander NIGEL RICHARDS became the first man to win two championships.  His winning word was "Ominfied" placed on a double word score for a whopping 95 points.  He won 12,000 pounds (62,000 Zloty).   And, finally...because lots of our readers are Scrabble Addicts...let's review some of the all-time scrabble records.    The highest scoring word of all time is QUIXOTRY, which when placed between two triple-word scores (called a double-triple by Scrabblers) with the 'R' tile already in place, is worth an amazing 365 points! The longest word ever played is DISCONTENTMENTS. The most points ever scored in a Scrabble game is 830, achieved by MICHAEL CRESTA in 2006.  When this occurred, Scrabble blogger Stefan Fatsis wrote:

"Michael's accomplishment can be heralded as the anagrammatic equivalent of Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game in 1962 or Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series: a remarkable, wildly aberrational event with potential staying power. Cresta's 830 shattered a 13-year-old record, 770 points, which had been threatened only infrequently."   

And you thought Scrabble was just another board game!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011



You know, there's a reason why being a bullfighter is the 'most dangerous job in all of Spain.'  It's because sometimes, the bull wins!!  And that's exactly what happened last Saturday at the FIESTAS DEL PILAR in the city of ZARAGOZA.  As the photo clearly illustrates, the matador, JUAN JOSE PADILLA took the bull's horn directly to his face.  The good news? He survived.  Doctors inserted "titanium plates and mesh to reconstruct the cheek bone structure and the eye socket." The bad news? He'll never see out of his left eye again.  Whew! Well, it looks like lucky JUAN was able to survive...but can the sport of bullfighting?

It's true, for bullfighting fans, the goring couldn't have come at a worse time.  On October First,  a mere six days prior, a law went into effect for the entire region of Catalonia, officially banned the sport forever.  In Barcelona, anti-bullfighting activists staged a rally downtown, while the last bullfight occurred at LA MONUMENTAL, the city's famous bullring.  Fans cried when the last Toro was slain.  It was a sad day for the stadium as well.  After this 'last fight' it closed its doors forever.  It's slated to become an upscale shopping mall.  NOTE: LA MONUMENTAL claimed the noble distinction of being one of the few venues in the world to host both a Beatles and a Rolling Stones concert. 

With these two sudden events, people all over the Iberian Peninsula are forced to ask themselves a tough question: Is bullfighting really a necessary part of Spanish culture?  Many feel it is.  After all, it is older than just about anything else in Spain.  It took two centuries for the Roman armies to kill every last one of the indigenous people of Hispania, who left only their name.  So when the settlers from Italy came to the 'Plain of Spain' in 17 BC, it was completely empty.   And the first thing those zany Romans did was build aqueducts for water and stadiums for gladiator battles.  (Afterward, they constructed their own homes, stores, schools, etc.)  Many of the bullrings of today are built on these ancient locations.

On the other hand, bullfighting is pretty darn gross and gory...feel free to visit the PETA website for all disgusting images and alarming stats.  They also admonish the argument of it being a 'historical icon.'  Let's face it, other insanely violent Spanish traditions...like torturing Jews during the Inquisition, or burning Aztecs at the stake...have become things of the past.  Why not bullfighting?  Statistics back up this argument.  Attendance is down 33% for bullfights over the last three years.  Polls conducted in Spain reveal that only 20% of the population 'strongly support' the tradition, but a whopping 50% want bullfighting banned permanently.

But opinion polls won't close down the bullrings.  So...for the time being...Spain is still hanging on to the proud tradition of bullfighting. There were 1,700 fights last year and each time the bull lost.  Talk about excitement!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011



On Saturday, the Government of Cuba made it official.  RAUL CASTRO repealed one of the world's silliest laws ever enacted.  As of October First, Cuban citizens can finally buy and sell cars.  No longer will the Cuban people be forced to save up suitcases full of pesos and meet in back-alleys with shady used-car salesmen...all just to get a Russian-made Moskvich.  While the new law is merely a minor step towards a more open-market system, it reassuring to the rest of the world that Cuba is at least trying to modernize its insane infrastructure.  Let's face it, when it comes to wacky laws and edicts, Cuba is in a universe of its own.

No...not a universe of it own...more of a time-warp of its own.  When FIDEL CASTRO usurped power in 1959, he engineered one of the shrewdest scams in world history.  Under the "Name of the Revolution," he instantly claimed ownership of everything on the island.  Usually, a coup d'etat in the Caribbean means the new guy occupies the government buildings and the TV stations.  But not FIDEL!  He took over all public and private structures...hotels, stores, factories, businesses, nightclubs and massage parlors.  Then, to insure he'd rule for the next fifty years, he stripped all private citizens of most human rights.  Things like Freedom of Speech and Private Ownership were instantly taken away...also in the "Name of the Revolution."  

But perhaps the most insane of FIDEL CASTRO's numerous laws, ordinances and edicts were those regarding automobiles.  Like other bourgeoisie luxuries, the import of all foreign cars was instantly banned.  Since there are no automobile factories on the island, this meant Cubans were stuck with what ever cars were on the island in the year 1959.  That means...with the exception of some Soviet imports...the cars and trucks on the highways and byways of the Caribbean nation haven't changed in fifty years.  Imagine the scene on a Havana street: A sky-blue '58 Chevrolet Bel Air honks as it tries to merge in front of a black '54 Chrysler Imperial.  (Don't believe me?  Ask me brother BIFF...he's been there!)

Sorry...back to Saturday's ordinance.   In addition to allowing individuals to sell their old cars, it also allowed for limited purchasing of new, imported cars as well.  Believe it or not, there are now a couple car dealerships in Cuba.  But wait...before you take that car home, amigo...you must first take a sworn oath, stating that the money used to purchase said auto was earned "solely through salary in an approved field and not through remittances from relatives abroad."  Since the average Cuban worker only earns $20 a month, we here at the DUNER BLOG don't see a lot of people buying many Bentley's or Maserati's any time soon.

Finally, in addition to the easing of automobile restrictions, the Government of RAUL CASTRO also announced new ordinances regarding private ownership.  Although the details won't be released until 2012, many see a new day dawning on the island.  It will take awhile, but someday in the not too distant future, we could see the island returning to its 1950's glory days...when Cuba was the coolest party destination on the planet.  Just ask LOUISE SUGGS.  She's the defending champion of the Havana Open Golf Tournament, which was last played in 1958.  She's 88 years old now, but still ready to defend her title.