Friday, 28 September 2012

ბრენდინგის ერი Branding a nation

I sing in a Georgian choir and am often asked to explain which Georgia it represents.

No it's not 18th century English music nor songs from a Southern United State.  If I mention Stalin, people think of USSR.

One leader has the power to evoke Georgia as a nation and that is Eduard Shevardnadze.

Georgians don't understand how this came about.  In the West we saw a succession of Soviet leaders, who seemed to be appointed because it was their turn.

They often seemed indistinguishable and equally lifeless.

Krushchev may have been chubby and cheerful, but seemed to have dead eyes.  He was most often ridiculed as the Michelin man.

Gorbachev showed greater promise, but still had a buttoned up quality.  His Minister for Foreign Affairs always stood out in television news film.  Shevardnadze appeared to have a functioning brain behind the eyes, a sense of humour and a pulse.  USSR seemed to be moving away from the film set of 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' and appointing warm blooded humanoids to lead them.

Shevardnadze pushed for greater reform, particularly in the Republics of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev wanted to slow down or back pedal.  He was a product of the Soviet system, but was a major driver for reform.

After the break up of the USSR he returned to Georgia and became President in his mid sixties.  He presided over a country with limited infrastructure and well established black and grey economies.  The police were corrupt and the country struggled to function, with violence, criminality and regular power cuts.  Shevardnadze avoided major military attacks on rebellious regions, which had caused such bitterness and resentment in Abkhazia under Zviad Gamsakhurdia.  He attempted to maintain civil relations with Russia and improve trading links.

His greatest achievements were in foreign policy, particularly his contribution to German reunification.

He is not admired for his attempts to hold on to power by rigging elections, although we are familiar with hanging chads, bogus voting applications and boundary changes in both the USA and the UK as some of the means for 'influencing' electoral outcomes.

Some criticise him for his failure to tackle corruption, which was widespread through most Soviet Republics.  One member of his government told me that he had the typical attitude of an old man.  Listening to this account, I was reminded of all the young men I'd met, who had strict fathers that turned into indulgent grandfathers.  Shevardnadze kept slack control of the budget and the economy suffered as a result.

Overseas we are left with the image of a handsome man with flashing teeth and twinkling eyes, who contributed to major innovation in state bureaucracy and international relations.

This contrasts with Vladimir Putin, who has become a gay icon, for his bare chested appearance in hunting, shooting and riding photos.

In 2003 Shevardnadze was tired and had tried to resign, but was persuaded to stay.  He is reported to have asked Saakashvili, when Misha came to unseat him in the Rose Revolution, 'Thank God, what took you so long?'

He continues to take an active interest in foreign policy and warns against other ways of trying to retain presidential power by participating in an attack on Iran.

History may re-evaluate Eduard Shevardnadze as a good statesman, who helped dismantle the soviet empire and emblems of the Cold War, but couldn't keep the lights on at home.

Mikheil Saakashvili is proud of his achievement in keeping the street lights shining all night on the main boulevards of Tbilisi, even if the power still shuts off sometimes in Svaneti.  He has been less successful in foreign policy and taming the Russian bear.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The pot noodle approach to health

What's that?

Just add water and stir.

Many people are involved in health and nutrition.  They recognise that people want a simple formula that they can easily follow and that will bring results.  Books are published, films are made, interviews are recorded, blog posts are written, which all tend to emphasise a simple formula.

This implies that we are all the same and respond in similar ways.

It ain't necessarily so.

I've been a follower of the low carb community since a health crisis a couple of years ago.  I'd tried more conventional ways of stemming weight gain, which didn't work.  I tried low carb eating and had great success in losing weight, improving fitness and feeling better.  This lasted for a couple of years and then I had some setbacks.

I noticed that I had heart arrythmia with very low carb days and protein smoothies.  I also felt better with slightly higher carb intake at various times.

I had a couple of holidays in Georgia and consumed a lot of khachapuri (cheese bread), kubdari (meat bread), shusha (potato and cheese) and matsoni (yogurt) with honey but didn't put on weight.

In the United States, some doctors keep their medical credentials, white coats and stethoscopes (though they no longer practice), so that they can sell their diet books, supplements and cooking appliances.  They also pick their unique selling point and find euphemisms for including ideas they wish to de-emphasise or distance themselves from, because these are contentious (high fat) or associated with old diet plans (calorie counting).  Protein and nutrient density are two popular terms that fit this category, as a higher protein intake is easier to advocate than high fat, given the huge public health campaigns against fat.  Calorie counting is deemed outmoded, but avoiding 'nutrient dense' foods may help avoid unintended weight gain.  Weight may be demonised to distinguish a plan from a generalised exhortation to avoid starch.

The growth of the blogosphere has encouraged people to experiment with their own health and publish the results as a general truth.  This may include the observation that very high Vitamin D3 intake in the mornings improves sleep.  Others conclude that high vitamin D3 intake increases blood vessel calcification and heart disease.

The advice to test things for ourselves is good.  However we have little evidence of measurable effect, if we don't have access to relevant tests.  We may also confuse cause-effect relations between 2 things, when something else is involved.

One aspect of the low carb movement is the number of young, fit men who routinely assume that a diet of red meat works as well for everyone as it does for them.

Mary Dan Eades points out the problems older women face with hormonal changes and weight gain.  Gary Taubes does not refer to this in his work to establish irrefutable scientific underpinning for medicine in the field of nutrition.  Perhaps the inclusion of Stephan Guyenet on the panel of experts for NuSi may help to redress the balance.

Jenny Ruhl, who runs Blood sugar 101, to help others control their blood sugar and deal with mis diagnosed diabetes, is critical of low carb dietary advice.  She wrote 'Diet 101' to clarify some of the simplistic myths about low carb eating.  Jenny encourages people to be realistic about weight loss they can achieve in later life (and to drop dreams of returning to the figure they had in their 20s).

She encourages people, especially women, to count calories to ensure they eat what their body needs (and no more), with a nutritional calculator to help.  Jenny reckons that some have problems with low blood sugar and exercise, so may need a tiny intake of glucose to keep them well.  She cautions against very low carb eating and side effects.  Her main advice is to focus on good health rather than just weight loss.  Jenny repeats the old maxim about the dangers of falling cholesterol.  A previous blog post noted that Bill Clinton fell foul of this phenomenon.  She would prefer people to achieve stable blood sugar than very low weight.  Jenny admits that she is now averse to steaks and red meat, from her experience of Paleo eating.

Diet Evolution includes examples of older people (men and women), who successfully reduced weight and improved health to realistic and enjoyable levels.

The focus on health continues with the reduction of diabetes, heart disease and cancer through diet and nutrition.

Dr Steven Gundry addresses many of those issues in his diet, which encourages people to reduce calories and increase intake of vegetables, particularly raw.  He explains how the body deals with different types of foods and shows how some have an aversive effect, rather than being naturally healthy.

Jenny Ruhl reminds us that specific foods don't make us fat, but may stimulate us to eat more than is good for us.  Low carb eating can help stabilise blood sugars and reduce cravings for sugar and starches.

One size does NOT fit all.  Find a way of eating that helps you achieve realistic goals over a long period and leaves you feeling healthy.

სანახავად შორიდან View from afar

On 1 October Georgia holds a general election.

This is a time of great change in Georgia.  The new parliament will move from the capital, Tbilisi, to Kutaisi, Georgia's second city.  Parliament will also preside over a new constitution, which seeks to limit the power of the President in favour of the Prime Minister and government of the country.  Presidential elections will take place next year.

From the outside, I see this as a battle between 2 sides:  President Mikhail Saakashvili and Georgian Dream leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In the blue corner is Misha, the man who led the peaceful Rose Revolution and enabled Eduard Shevardnadze to step down as President in 2003.  His United National Movement party came to power and his team of young MBAs have focussed on finance.  He claims to have protected Georgia from Russian incursions through his alliance with the West, stabilised the economy and restored confidence in the bond market.  He seems to model himself on the 11th century monarch, David the Builder, by initiating a huge wave of construction and refurbishment in Batumi, parts of Tbilisi and the new ski resort around Mestia in Svaneti.

In the red corner is Boris the oligarch, who made billions through computers, push button phones, hotels, chemist shops in Russia.  In 2011 he moved into politics and philanthropy in Georgia, called himself Bidzina, dismissed the importance of his French citizenship and began his challenge to Misha, drawing on his personal fortune for the campaign.  He leads the Georgian Dream party.

Turnout for Georgian elections is usually low, but Monday's vote is expected to be unusually high.  People are demonstrating on the streets.

What are the politicians offering the people?

In the West we'd describe it as negative campaigning.  In LAB Profiling terms, Georgian politicians seem to believe that people are motivated by moving away from the negative (ie what they're against).

Misha implies that Boris is a Russian stooge and would open the door to renewed dominance and opression by familiar political and economic tyrants.  There are questions about how Bidzina made his money and the methods used.

This can be summarised by the following lines:

'And always keep tight hold of nurse, for fear of meeting something worse.'
Hilaire Belloc.

'Better the devil you know, than the devil you don't know.'

Boris states that he aims to hold power for a couple of years and then return to his philanthropic life.  He implies that he would help wrest Georgia away from tyranny so that it could return to true democracy.

Pictures of Ivanishvili being blessed by the Georgian Patriarch appear daily on the net.  This is the spiritual equivalent of a Triple A credit rating in Georgia.  Misha was characterised as the Anti-Christ early in his Presidency and the pictures are an easy way to imply that Boris is a saint.

Cynical Westerns say that this may have a direct connection with the Patriarch's large new golden cathedral in the centre of Tbilis, funded by Bidzina.  This seems an example of 'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours.'  Questions remain about Bidzina exceeding legal limits on party and electoral funding, implying that he is trying to buy the election.

A week ago a blurred video was released that allegedly showed beatings and violation of prisoners.  There was uproar, ministerial resignations and a flurry of activity to attack and defend justice policy in Georgia.  The unstated implication was that such treatment would cease under the godly rule of Boris.

In summary, Bidzina's electoral pitch seems to be:  "I'm not the anti-Christ or 'the Spanish Inquisition' "

There's nothing new about the revelation that Georgia has one of the largest per capital prison populations, with tough sentencing for first time offences.  An early blog post included a Thomas de Waal video that was critical of Misha's regime.

Political and military leaders have been blessed by religious leaders since the beginning of history and I'm willing to bet that most of the tyrants who invaded Georgia had a ringing spiritual endorsement from God, Allah and the gods of Mount Olympus.

In 1999, Augusto Pinochet, friend of right wing Western politicians, was supported by the Pope, when a Spanish judge wanted to bring him to justice for war crimes.  He penned political prisoners in a sports stadium, famously had the hands of a folk singer cut off (to stop him singing protest songs) and used rodents on women prisoners rather than broom handles on men to violate them.  Beware of cosy endorsements.

Nowhere do I see a clear outline of what each politician promises to deliver.

In LAB terms there is an absence of Towards the Positive (ie what are they FOR).  The Georgian Dream seems to be not-the-nightmare.  In psychological terms it's another version of  'I won't give you a blue elephant.'  The unconscious mind deletes the negatives and you're left with the image of the blue elephant and nothing else.

Misha has a strategy, though many believe that it benefits only his friends and supporters.  I've certainly met ex-patriot Georgians who are reluctant to voice political opinions in case they get back to the government and harm relatives in Tbilisi.  The state has a tight control on the media and mainstream television channels.  Bidzina seems to be generous to some people, but this won't necessarily benefit Georgia and move it forward in a direction that benefits everyone.  There seems to be no overt philosophy or strategy.

Georgian elections seem to come down to one question:

Which is the lesser of 2 evils?

I guess that may lead Georgia to a coalition government, much uncertainty and no solution to severe problems of unemployment and decline in agriculture.

Good luck

(Poll posted on Wednesday 26 September 2012)

1  Georgian Dream

2  United National Movement

3  Christian Democratic Movement


The above poll was accurate and Bidzina's Georgian Dream (coalition of a strange assortment of minority parties) won.  They now form the government.  Next year we find out who will become President.