Tuesday, March 31, 2015

So Ready For Spring

View from my office at IBM
I am so bloody ready for Spring!!  Today I took an umbrella to work with me because it was raining.  I can't believe that it's the end of March and now we get snow. 

Let's hope that it's not another White Easter this year.

Friday, March 27, 2015


UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  It is a specialized agency of the United Nations whose purpose is to promote international collaboration to further fundamental freedom.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a place recognized for special cultural or physical significance.  "Place" can be a building, a city, complex, desert, forest, island, lake, monument or mountain.  The selection process is a difficult one.  Being listed as a World Heritage Site is a big deal as some funding is provided plus it brings lots of tourists.

There are currently 1,031 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Italy has the most with 51 sites.  Followed by China (48), Spain (44), France (41), Germany (40), Mexico (33) and India (32).  Only twice have sites been removed for failing to maintain strict standards.  Oman's Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was removed in 2007 and Germany's Dresden Elbe Valley was removed in 2009.
UNESCO Sites in Czechland

Czech Republic is fortunate to have 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

- Historic Centre of Český Krumlov
- Historic Centre of Prague
- Historic Centre of Telč
- Pilgrimage Church of St. John of Nepomuk at Zelená Hora
- Kutná Hora: Historical Town Centre with the Church of St. Barbara and the Cathedral of Our Lady at Sedlec
- Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape
- Gardens and Castle at Kroměříž
- Holašovice Historic Village
- Litomyšl Castle
- Holy Trinity Column in Olomouc
- Tugendhat Villa in Brno
- Jewish Quarter and St. Procopius' Basilica in Třebíč

In the 1990s, the United States Congress enacted laws that require an automatic funding cutoff for any United Nations agency that accepts Palestine as a member.  Well Palestine joined UNESCO and in 2011 the USA (and Israel) began withholding financial support.  By withholding dues for two years, both the USA and Israel lost its votes in the UNESCO General Assembly back in 2013.

The lack of U.S. support has had a huge impact on UNESCO's ability to promote freedom of expression, press freedom, gender equality, clean water, and education programs for girls throughout the world.  These are key things that the USA should want to have a voice in and now don't.  The Obama administration has tried to change the laws to allow for UNESCO funding but it hasn't been successful in Congress.  These laws need to be changed before Palestine joins other U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization.

Update:  July 2019, two new Czech locations were designated World Heritage Sites.
In 1945, UNESCO was created in order to respond to the firm belief of nations, forged by two world wars in less than a generation, that political and economic agreements are not enough to build a lasting peace. Peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.
UNESCO strives to build networks among nations that enable this kind of solidarity, by:
  • Mobilizing for education: so that every child, boy or girl, has access to quality education as a fundamental human right and as a prerequisite for human development.
  • Building intercultural understanding: through protection of heritage and support for cultural diversity. UNESCO created the idea of World Heritage to protect sites of outstanding universal value.
  • Pursuing scientific cooperation: such as early warning systems for tsunamis or trans-boundary water management agreements, to strengthen ties between nations and societies.
  • Protecting freedom of expression: an essential condition for democracy, development and human dignity.
- See more at: http://en.unesco.org/about-us/introducing-unesco#sthash.ui7bwnpJ.dpuf

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Republic of Kazakhstan

The Republic of Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia.  It is the 9th largest country in the world but is home to just more than 18 million people.  Almaty is the largest city, and until 1997, was the country's capital when it was moved to Astana.

The country is huge.  It is almost four times the size of Texas.  Қазақстан  shares borders with China, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  Except for its access to the Caspian Sea, it is the world's largest landlocked country.  

The land was inhabited by nomadic tribes until Genghis Khan occupied the area in the 13th century but eventually the nomads regained power.  During the 18th century the Russians came and by the middle of the 19th century all of Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire.  In 1936 it became part of the Soviet Union.  

During the 1950s and 1960s, many Russians, and people deported from other Soviet republics went to Kazakhstan to cultivate agriculture in the north.  So many arrived that ethnic Kazakhs were outnumbered.  Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence from the USSR.  In the mid-1990s many non-Kazakhs left the country while many Kazakhs returned.  Today the country is about 63% Kazakh and almost 24% Russian.  Roughly 70% of the country is Muslim and over 25% are Russian Orthodox.

Although no longer part of the Soviet Union the country maintains close relations with Russia.  Aside from being part of the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia leases about 6000 km² (+2300 miles²) around the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  This is Russia's space launch site where the first man ever was launched into space.  The current lease runs until 2050.

Kazakh (Cyrillic) alphabet
Kazakh is the country's official language and is spoken by around 64% of the population.  Russian is a co-official language which most people speak.  The plan is to replace the Kazakh Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin script by 2025.

The Tenge (₸) is the official currency.  Kazakhstan has the largest economy in Central Asia.  The country is rich in fossil fuel reserves, uranium, copper, zinc, and agriculture.  In order to cut its dependence on energy and mining, the country is building up its transportation, pharmaceutical, telecommunication and food processing industries.  The government's strategy is to make Kazakhstan one of the 30 most developed countries by 2050.  

President Nazarbayev
Kazakhstan is a republic where the president holds almost all power.  Presidential terms are 5 years and there is a two term maximum.  Except here's the catch...  The current president is Nursultan Nazarbayev.  He was in charge of Soviet Kazakhstan prior to independence and became the country's first post communist president.  Since his official status is "First President of Kazakhstan" he alone is allowed unlimited terms in office therefore he's been in charge of the country since 1991.  In the last election he won with almost 98% of the vote.

Update:  In October 2017, a presidential decree ordered that the Kazakh alphabet change from Cyrillic to Latin script by 2025.

New Kazakh alphabet
Update:  On 20 March 2019, Astana was renamed to Nur-Sultan in honour of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Update:  Here's an interesting  15 minute YouTube video about Kazakhstan's changing alphabet plus some behind the scenes insight.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kyrgyz Republic

The Kyrgyz Republic is more commonly known as Kyrgyzstan.  This mostly mountainous, landlocked country is located in Central Asia and borders China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and UzbekistanKyrgyzstan is a little smaller than South Dakota and is home to about 5.7 million people.  The capital is Bishkek.

Kyrgyzstan has a proud nomadic tradition.  Most of the land was annexed by the Russian Empire in 1876.  In 1916 there was a major revolt and roughly 16% of the population was killed.  In 1936 it became a Soviet republic.  The country became independent in 1991 when the USSR broke apart.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor country that depends mostly on agriculture and minerals extraction.  Tobacco and cotton are its chief products.  But the country is rich is scenery.  The  Tien Shan mountains and abundant valleys are popular with hikers.

Kyrgyz alphabet
The official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian.  About 75% of the population is Muslim while roughly 20% are Russian Orthodox.

In 2010 there were violent protests which overthrew the government that had been in power since independence.

Until 2014 Kyrgyzstan was the only country in the world to host both U.S. and Russian military bases at the same time.  After more than 12 years, the U.S. left Manas Air Base which handled cargo in and out of Afghanistan.

The Som is the official currency.  One Som is about 1.5¢.

In May 2015 the country will officially join the Eurasian Economic Union.

I found a video out on YouTube that covers a serious problem in the country.  Apparently about half of all Kyrgyz marriages are a result of bride kidnapping.  Although it is illegal it is a common way to get a bride.

© Russia Today

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Permanent Residency

It's official.  I finally received my new permanent residency ID card.  No more having to submit all of that paperwork to apply for Czech work visas ever again.  Go figure that that my Czech green card is actually blue and pink.

So here's the deal with permanent residency...

As a non-EU citizen with trvalý pobyt, I am now able to live and work in Czechland without ever having to apply for another work visa.  I've been paying in to the Czech social system since I moved here but now I'm actually eligible for benefits if I ever need them.  With permanent residency it is also much easier to apply for a bank loan or mortgage now.

In five years I will be eligible to apply for Czech citizenship (and no, I don't have to give up my American passport).  I'll just need to pass an advanced language test and a citizenship exam.  But who knows where I'll be in another five years?  

Monday, March 16, 2015

Kyiv, Ukraine

Kyiv is the capital of Ukraine and is located in the north central part of the country on the Dnieper River.  It is home to around 2,9 million people while the greater metro area has about 3,4 million inhabitants.  It is the 8th largest city in Europe.  It is one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe.  It's thought to have been founded in the 9th century but the official date is 482 A.D.

I grew up spelling the capital city as "Kiev" which is the transliteration of the Russian word "Киев".  The Ukrainian word for the city is Київ and since 1995 the Ukrainian government adopted Kyiv as the official transliteration.  Just in case anyone thought I was spelling it wrong.

Independence Square, known locally as Maidan, has been the place for people to stand up and be noticed since the country's independence movement in 1990.  It was the epicenter of the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests

Throughout the square are flowers, candles and photos of people who died, or are still missing, from when the previous government cracked down on protesters.

The brothers Kyi, Schek, Khoryv, and their sister Lybid, are said to be the founders of the medieval city of Kyiv.  Again, lots of flowers and candles.

It's pretty clear that Russia's president is not very popular in Kyiv.  The banner on the fountain says "Stop Putin's Terrorism and Hypocrisy". 

St. Andrew's Church was completed in 1767.  The beautiful Baroque church sits on a hill overlooking a historical neighborhood.

The Golden Gate was the main city gate during the 11th century and it was dismantled during the Middle Ages.  It was rebuilt in 1982 although no images of the original gate ever survived.   

St. Michael's is a Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral and a functioning monastery.  Originally built in the 1700s, Soviet authorities demolished it in the 1930s.  It was rebuilt and opened again in 1999. 

The granite monument commemorates the millions of Ukrainians that starved to death in 1932 - 1933 in Holodomor, the Great Famine.

In 1982 the People's Friendship Arch was built to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Soviet Union and to celebrate Kyiv's 1,500th anniversary.  There's a bronze statue of a Russian and Ukrainian workers holding up the Order of Friendship.  The statue has been given a recent dose of Ukrainian color.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky Memorial
I don't think that I even scratched the surface of everything there is to see in Kyiv.  I only had a few hours to walk around the city before I had to catch my flight back home.  But what I did manage to see just makes me want to go back soon.  I figure a good three or four days would be enough to explore the city properly.  Plus, when I go back I want to go visit Chernobyl.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Republic of Užupis

No trip to Vilnius is complete without a visit to Užupis.  The self-proclaimed Republic of Užupis is basically an artist commune located in the Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Angel of Užupis

Užupis is small; about 0,62 km² (148 acres) and home to about 7000 people.  Roughly 1000 artists live here.  According to the welcome sign the speed limit is 20 kph and a smile is required to enter.

Užupis translates to "the other side of the river", referring to the Vilnia River that Vilnius gets its name from.  It was once the Jewish Quarter.  During Soviet times the area became quite dodgy.  In the early nineties many creative types took advantage of the cheap prices and started moving in.

Backpacker Jesus Statue
On 1 April 1997, the district declared itself an independent republic.  It's pretty tongue-in-cheek to declare independence on April Fool's Day.  While no country recognizes the republic they do have a president, a flag, a constitution, a 12 man army, and the Dalai Lama is one of four honorary citizens.

The constitution is displayed in 23 languages along a wall on Paupio Street.  It's a very interesting constitution.

  1. Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnelė, and the River Vilnelė has the right to flow by everyone. 
  2. Everyone has the right to hot water, heating in winter and a tiled roof.
  3. Everyone has the right to die, but this not an obligation.
  4. Everyone has the right to make mistakes.
  5. Everyone has the right to be unique.
  6. Everyone has the right to love.
  7. Everyone has the right not to be loved, but not necessarily.
  8. Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown.
  9. Everyone has the right to be idle.
  10. Everyone has the right to love and take care of a cat. 
  11. Everyone has the right to look after the dog until one of them dies.
  12. A dog has the right to be a dog.
  13. A cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need.
  14. Sometimes everyone has the right to be unaware of their duties.
  15. Everyone has the right to be in doubt, but this is not an obligation.
  16. Everyone has the right to be happy.
  17. Everyone has the right to be unhappy.
  18. Everyone has the right to be silent.
  19. Everyone has the right to have faith.
  20. No one has the right to violence.
  21. Everyone has the right to appreciate their unimportance.
  22. No one has the right to have a design on eternity.
  23. Everyone has the right to understand.
  24. Everyone has the right to understand nothing.
  25. Everyone has the right to be of any nationality.
  26. Everyone has the right to celebrate or not celebrate their birthday.
  27. Everyone shall remember their name.
  28. Everyone may share what they possess.
  29. No one can share what they do not possess.
  30. Everyone has the right to have brothers, sisters and parents.
  31. Everyone may be independent.
  32. Everyone is responsible for their freedom.
  33. Everyone has the right to cry.
  34. Everyone has the right to be misunderstood.
  35. No one has the right to make another person guilty.
  36. Everyone has the right to be individual.
  37. Everyone has the right to have no rights.
  38. Everyone has the right to not to be afraid.
  39. Do not defeat.
  40. Do not fight back.
  41. Do not surrender.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania

Vilnius was granted city status in 1387 and today is the capital of Lithuania.  It's in the southeast part of the country and has a population of almost 543,000 while over 807,000 live in the greater metro area.  Vilnius is the country's largest city and, after Riga, it is the second largest in the Baltics.

Prior to WWII there were more than 100 synagogues in Vilnius.  In 1812, Napoleon called the city "the Jerusalem of the North." However, there's a church everywhere you turn in this city.  There are 65 churches in Vilnius.  The historic old town was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Gate of Dawn was built between 1503 and 1522.  This is the last remaining city gate which was part of the city's defense system.  The other eight city gates were destroyed by the government back in the 18th century.
Vilnius Town Hall

The Choral Synagogue was built in 1903.  It is the last remaining synagogue in the city.

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas is one of the oldest Orthodox churches in the city.  The original church was built in 1340.  The current church was reconsecrated in 1866.

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. Parasceve was built in 1865.

The Cathedral of St. Stanislaus and St. Ladislaus is a Roman Catholic basilica.  The current church dates back to around 1419.  The bell tower is not so common outside of Italy.

The most famous church is probably St. Anne's.  The church was consecrated in 1500 and is made from 33 different styles of brick.

The Gediminas Castle Complex dates back to the 13th century.  During Russian occupation in the mid-1600's its defensive walls and towers were destroyed.  There is one remaining tower and the complex is part of the national museum.

The Green Bridge crosses the Neris River.  The original bridge dated back to the 16th century and it was the oldest in the city.  The present bridge was completed in 1952 and displays Soviet-era socialist statues.

Seimas Palace is the Lithuanian parliament building.  It was completed in 1980.

The Hill of the Three Crosses is a prominent landmark in Kalnai Park.  Legend has it that seven Franciscan friars were beheaded on top of the hill.  In the 17th century wooden crosses were put here until concrete ones were erected in 1916.  The Soviet government tore it down in 1950 but it was replaced in 1989.  A hike up the hill gives a nice view of the city.

Update:  In July 2015, the government removed the statues from the Green Bridge.  The statues were erected in 1952 and are corroded.  They have been removed for repairs but there are no plans for them to be returned.