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Sicko no more – Yea for Obama!

March 23, 2010

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After a yearlong push, president Obama succeeded where many  before him have attempted but failed. In an historical victory on Sunday night, the House of Representatives approved of a comprehensive health care bill – with 219 to 212 votes and not a single republican voting for –, thereby clearing the way for far reaching health care reforms.

The call for an overhaul of the US health care system began as a way to come to the aid of the uninsured. It gained momentum however when middle-class families flooded congress with complaints about their insurance companies, including sky high premiums, denial based on pre-existing conditions and even cancellations when they became ill.

President Obama made the passing of the health care bill – which will provide medical coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans and affect almost everyone who is already covered – the centerpiece of his agenda. The heated political battle that preceded the bill’s approval will likely divide parties for many years to come and be used by republicans as a weapon in this year’s midterm elections.

One American that will likely have celebrated Sunday night is liberal filmmaker and author Michael Moore. His 2007 documentary Sicko investigates the US health care system, focusing on insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry.

According to Sicko, close to 50 million Americans are uninsured and even those who are covered often become victims of insurance company fraud. In the documentary, former employees reveal initiatives aimed at cutting costs and increasing company profits, including giving out bonuses to physicians who can find reasons to deny necessary treatment for policyholders.

In the new health care bill, insurance companies are barred from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, canceling coverage for sick people, as well as charging higher premiums based on a person’s gender or medical history.

Cartoon by John Cole

Individuals at the same time are required to purchase coverage for which new subsidies will be provided to families of four with an annual income of up to $88,000 – four times the poverty standard in the US. Tax for Medicare (the US social insurance program for retirees) will be imposed on investment income for individuals making over $200,000 and couples making over $250,000. The plan is projected to cost $940 billion in the first 10 years and to reduce the deficit by $130 billion during that period.

The US health care reform plan is in part modeled after the way universal health care is organized in European countries, including the Netherlands. Interestingly enough, in recent years the Netherlands has looked at the US health care system when it searched for ways to increase patient quality as well as productivity and efficiency in health care.

In 2006 a new system based on regulated competition was introduced. The Dutch model includes a mandatory basic coverage – for which low-income citizens are subsidized – and optional supplemental coverage that can be purchased at an additional premium.

So far, surveys about public satisfaction in the Netherlands provide conflicting findings. However, a 2009 study by Sweden and Brussels based Health Consumer Powerhouse – a private research company co-funded by the European Commission – ranked the Netherlands number 3 of countries where people get ‘the most bang for their buck’ on its Euro Consumer Health Index.

The US health care overhaul will stretch out over the next years, with some legislation – such as access to high-risk pools for people with no insurance because of pre-existing conditions – taking effect almost immediately. Most reforms however will not take place until 2014 so we will have to wait to fully see and feel ‘what change looks like’.

For the moment, I celebrate Obama’s victory and that of the 219 democrats that supported the bill and helped move America in the right direction for all, republicans included.

Laura Jansen: a Dutch star rises on the American horizon

March 17, 2010

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I heard her cover of Use Somebody, originally sung by Nashville based rock band Kings of Leon, numerous times on the radio before finding out her name is Laura Jansen and she is Dutch. Well, half Dutch with an American mother and a father from the Netherlands – hence her name Jansen, which is the most common Dutch last name. On March 18th, Laura Jansen plays the first of three concerts in SXSW in Austin, Texas, before touring Europe in April and May.

Jansen’s style can best be described as piano driven – she accompanies herself on the piano – alternative, indie pop. Her clear and mature voice reveals classical training without being overly stylized and her self-written songs are easy to the ear without being simplistic. She reminds me of a a slightly less dramatic version of Tori Amos.

Jansen, 32, was raised in the Netherlands where she was trained at the Rotterdam Conservatory. Nine years ago she moved to Boston to study at Berklee College of Music before heading south to Nashville. After an unsuccessful attempt to write and sing country – “I am not a cowgirl”-, Jansen eventually found her musical home In Los Angeles. She established herself as a regular at the Hotel Cafe, a small music venue in Hollywood that helped launch the careers of artists like John Mayor and Joshua Radin, to name a few. With Radin, Jansen sang a duet in Ellen De Generes‘ living room, at her wedding to Portia de Rossi in 2008.

Jansen’s songs were featured in MTV’s reality TV shows Newport Harbor: The Real Orange County and The real world: Cancun as well as in a Dove commercial. Laura Jansen is a true artist of her generation and spends almost 8 hours online every day updating her profile and staying in touch with fans through social media tools such as Facebook, Hyves – the Dutch equivalent of Facebook –, Twitter, MySpace and YouTube.

In the Netherlands we only got to know Laura Jansen after she was discovered by Dutch/British songwriter and producer John Ewbank, who helped her land a record deal with Universal. Her first album Bells – number 3 of most downloaded albums from iTunes Holland – was released last fall and came in at number 16 in the Dutch Album Top 100 Chart. I have a feeling we will be hearing more from this rising Dutch star; both in the US and the Netherlands.

If Obama can do it then why can’t Wouter Bos?

March 16, 2010

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Wouter Bos/Photo by Edwin Smulders

If a US politician would resign to spend more time with his family, one would suspect either a serious illness or a sexual scandal. Not so in the Netherlands. Last week, both deputy prime minister Wouter Bos and Camiel Eurlings, Dutch minister of transport, public works and water management, left the political arena because they want to see more of their families.

Bos is a father of three young children and Eurlings and his girlfriend are planning to start a family soon. The initial shock over their successive resignations soon made place for a mostly positive response. Despite the recent government collapse over the withdrawal of Dutch troops in Afghanistan, few doubted the politicians’ motives. Moreover, the two were widely applauded by colleagues and the public alike for setting an example that men, like women, have the option to put their careers on hold and their families first.

Now let’s take a look at the world’s most powerful family man, president Barack Obama. Like most first families, Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha live their lives in the public eye. However, Obama is the first US president who actually claims private time with his family as well. Obama is known to plan his meetings around his daughters’ sports games and recitals and whenever he is not traveling, the Obama’s eat dinner together around 6.30 pm. By the time the girls are in bed, work continues.

Somehow, Obama does not feel the need to sacrifice either his political career or his family. In fact, his dedication to serving the greater good seems to be inspired by his very fatherhood. In an open letter to his daughters, published in Parade shortly after his presidential inauguration, Obama wrote:

“(…)These are the things I want for you – to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world. And I want every child to have the same chances to learn and dream and grow and thrive that you girls have. That’s why I’ve taken our family on this great adventure.”

Undoubtedly so, strategic considerations played a role in the writing and publishing of Obama’s letter. Nonetheless, I am confident that he meant every word of it and reading his letter you can feel his heartfelt dedication.

The First Family/Photo Getty Images

It may well be the lack of precisely that dedication that has led Wouter Bos and Camiel Eurlings to leave politics. They did not feel capable of combining their work for the common good of a nation with their involvement in raising their (unborn) children. Interesting side note is that both politicians will continue to receive 80 percent of their salary for a year and 70 percent for up to five years thereafter – at the expense of the Dutch taxpayers, who won’t get anything in return. This may have made their decision to quit a little easier.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a mum myself, I put great value on family time and I wholeheartedly agree that ideally both parents play an important role in their children’s upbringing. But I also believe that truly impassioned people can move mountains and may not have to choose between pursuing their family ideals and those of the world around them. Because let’s be real, if the president of the United States still finds the time to tuck his daughters in at night, then surely Bos and Eurlings should.

Too big to bail out? Iceland’s payback put on ice

March 12, 2010

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Normally you wouldn’t expect a national referendum in Iceland to make international headlines. Last Saturday, however, Icelandic voters rejected a plan by their government to repay a 5,3 billion loan to the Netherlands and the UK. And the world paid close attention.

In 2008 Icelandic Internet savings bank Icesave attracted billions in deposits from Dutch and British citizens by promising them sky-high interest rates. Later that year Icesave filed for bankruptcy as a result of its bankers’ bad, complicated and leveraged investments, mostly on real estate.

By then Iceland’s economy was already hit hard by the nationalizing of three banks and the fall of the Króna, the national currency. The Icelandic government – that collapsed over the financial crisis in January of 2009 – did not have the money to bail out Icesave. So the Dutch and British did, thereby securing reimbursement for their citizens. But now that the Netherlands and the UK want their money back, the vast majority of the Icelandic population voted against their government’s payback plan.

Basically, the plan would require each Icelandic household to put in the equivalent of $135 a month for eight years, totaling a quarter of an average year salary. Icelandic people argue it is unfair to make them pay for their own government’s failure to restrain the recklessness – may I add greed – of a handful of bank executives. And for the ignorance – may I add lack of judgment – of the people they mislead.

The unfolding of events in Iceland is not that much different from what we have seen happening in the US – be it on a considerably different scale. As a comparison, the numbers Iceland faces would equal the US government taking on a debt of 5 trillion. And though that may sound astronomical, in reality the US bailout tab is already close to 2 trillion as calculated by the New York Times. Moreover, the US government has obligated itself to pay out $12.5 trillion more if things get worse.

Back to Iceland now. With unemployment rates rising, a crashed Króna and public services decreasing, the Dutch and the British are expected to soften their payment terms. Sooner or later though, the bill will come due. And one way or another the 300.000 Icelandic taxpayers will be paying ‘their’ share of it, as will the roughly 200 million taxpayers in the United States.

And those in many other countries for that matter, including The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the UK where banks too big to fail were bailed out by their governments – without much public consultation at all. Now the question that remains is “have we learned?” Let’s pay close attention.

Amsterdam gets Second Life

March 10, 2010

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Though the hype around Second Life – the 3-D virtual world – has long passed, it is far from dead. In fact, San Francisco based mother company Linden Lab has opened offices in the heart of Amsterdam this week. With more then half of the Second Life community already hailing from outside of the US, the company now wants to focus on its European expansion. And Amsterdam is just the place to do that.

According to Linden Lab’s CEO Mark Kingdon, Amsterdam is not only a creative and business friendly city, it also bears similarities to a virtual world with the unexpected waiting around every street corner. In addition, the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX) will allow Linden Lab to not only manage its marketing activities from the Dutch capital but to house servers there as well.

Second Life started in 2003 as an online 3-D virtual reality community. Users create an avatar or ‘alter ego’ to connect and socialize with other virtual people. Second Life’s business model is based primarily on the trading of virtual goods like clothes, wigs and even body parts that Second Life residents sell and buy for a couple of dollars (so called Linden dollars) for their avatars. Citizens of the virtual world can also buy land, houses and furniture to decorate their virtual homes.

In 2009 Second Life transactions totaled 567 million dollar, a 65 percent growth from the year before. 55 million dollar of the total sales was joined traders’ revenue. In 2006, the Chinese/German former teacher Anshe Chung became the first real life millionaire by trading in virtual real estate through Second Life.

Financial analysts’ high expectations of Second Life’s early days have tempered somewhat. The belief that 3-D virtual reality would become the future for Internet has not yet proven to be true. For Second Life specifically, the number of active users as a percentage of people who just signed up out of curiosity has been disappointing. The next step in Linden Lab’s strategy is therefore to integrate more of traditional web functionality in Second Life. In the newest version of the company’s software users can watch YouTube videos in Second Life or organize virtual congresses, as IBM did last year when its IBM Academy was held in the virtual world.

Happy 51st Birthday Barbie!

March 9, 2010

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Some brands have become so much part of global pop culture that we almost forget where they originate. Barbie, who turns 51 today, is one such brand. The tall blue-eyed natural blond with legs up into the air was introduced at the American Toy Fair in New York City on March 9th of 1959. Since then the brainchild of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler has traveled the world and is sold in over 150 countries.

Despite her popularity – or perhaps because of it – Barbie has been the subject of many controversies. Most commonly, critics have argued that the American icon promotes an unrealistic body image for young girls and puts them at risk for becoming anorexic. At a 1/6 scale Barbie measures 5 feet 9 inches and weighs in at 110 pounds according to a pink bathroom scale that came with a 1965 version of the doll. This would mean 35 pounds underweight for a woman her height.

More controversy appeared in 1992 when Mattel released the Talking Teen Barbie who uttered phrases like “I love shopping”, “Will we ever have enough clothes” and “Math class is tough”. After the American Association of University Women qualified this as offending to women, Mattel agreed to erase the math class sentence. Barbie’s body proportions have been slightly adjusted also, most drastically in 1997 when her waist was widened. According to Mattel this would make her better suited for contemporary fashion designers such as Christian Louboutin, Versace and Dutch couturier Mart Visser who designed a Barbie clothing line in 1997.

In her 51 years on this earth Barbie has had many careers. Everything from stewardess, to surgeon, to US air force pilot. Most recently she has been recruited as a computer engineer. Barbie designers worked closely with the Society of Women Engineers and the National Academy of Engineering to ensure that Barbie met the standards of her title.

I still remember getting my first Barbie doll about 30 years ago – and I still have it. Last Christmas, my 5-year-old daughter unwrapped her first one and refused to let anyone touch it for a week because “ this is my first Barbie and it’s very special”. I guess she’s right. And I predict that if Barbie will continue to reinvent herself she will become 100. At least.

A Dutch Oscar Experience

March 8, 2010

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Dutch production Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime) did not make it beyond the shortlist for an Oscar in the category best foreign language film. Still, the Netherlands was as excited about the 82nd Academy Awards as the rest of the world.

Dutch television devoted all of Sunday night and well into Monday morning to the biggest movie event of the year. Zapping away between national channels and the American E!, the differences in entertainment journalism were evident. Where E! is all about glitter, glamour and the celebrity factor of the Oscars, the Dutch took a more serious approach and had invited a bunch of intellectual looking movie critics to a studio. Their comments were a sharp contrast from fairytale Hollywood on E! but I enjoyed watching both.

And as for the fashion, we may have seen one or more dresses by Dutch celebrity couturier Addy van den Krommenacker on the red carpet. Some 15 of his creations were shipped to Los Angeles at the invitation of celebrity stylists there. Oscar winning actor Forest Whitaker’s wife Keisha Whitaker, amongst others, had shown interest in wearing one of his designs.

By the time the actual award show started, I was dozing off. Mind you it was 2.30 am local time by then. My Oscar experience wasn’t quite the same this year and I missed the Oscar parties we used to have when we lived in the States. Nevertheless I watched the show’s highlights on Monday and it was fun. I love the Oscars.

Mc Donald’s goes Dutch

March 5, 2010

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American icon Mc Donald’s introduced a new burger this week in Dutch restaurants. The ‘Dutch Deluxe’ is part of Mc Donald’s effort to position its brand as ‘good food fast’ rather then ‘good fast food’.

What’s special about the Dutch Deluxe is that the typical soggy white bun around the burger has been replaced by a hearty wholewheat one. The Dutch love their bread so this new addition to the menu might be a hit. But don’t be fooled; the ‘healthy’ burger still counts about 280 calories so I wouldn’t get one every day. If you do, the calories can be burned down by taking a brisk walk covering 3,5 miles/5,6 kilometers per hour, skiing cross country for 15 minutes or washing your car by hand in an hour.

Mc Donald’s commercial for the Dutch Deluxe plays off of the – in my experience false – assumption that the Dutch always share their restaurant check (‘going Dutch’). Though the message is silly the video still made me smile.

It was a festive day for Dutch and American gays

March 4, 2010

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Yesterday, a dispute between a local Dutch parish and gay right groups came to an end after the Sint-Jan church in Den Bosch made a statement and gays called for an end to the protests.

The two clashed last month when an openly gay man was refused Holy Communion by his priest the same week he was chosen to be prince of the carnival – a prominent role in Dutch carnival celebrations. Leading up to the peace making yesterday, the church said it would leave it up to believers to decide whether they are ready to receive communion.

Had this happened in the US we probably wouldn’t have been that surprised. But it is remarkable in a country like the Netherlands where most people support gay rights and same sex marriage has been legal since 2001.

Interestingly enough on the same day the Catholic Church and Dutch gays mended fences, same sex marriage licenses became available in Washington DC. So, it was a festive day for gays on both sides of the ocean. The only damper on the party comes from Washington DC’s Catholic Charities. In response to the same sex equality law in their state they are cutting the spousal benefits program for their staff. Employees that are already married (the straight ones) will keep their coverage, but all new hires can wave it goodbye, gay or straight. The announcement follows last month’s decision by Catholic Charities to end its foster care and adoption program because the new law in same sex marriage would have compelled the agency to place children with qualified gay applicants. Only in America…

Droog Design at SoHo House New York

March 3, 2010

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Today Renny Ramakers, co-founder of Droog, the internationally renowned conceptual Dutch design company, speaks at SoHo House New York in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. Following her lecture Droog will set up shop at SoHo House New York with a pop up Margarita bar in April, a pop up store in May and a pop up go slow cafe on the hotel’s rooftop in June.

Droog (Dutch for Dry) started in Amsterdam in 1993 and has since then designed and realized over 2oo products, projects and events collaborating with more then 100 independent designers. Droog helped launch the careers of Dutch designers like Hella Jongerius, Richard Hutten and Marcel Wanders. Wanders gained instant fame with his 1996 knotted chair, which he produced for Droog. At the 2006 Art Basel Miami, celeb power couple Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z payed $ 40.000 for a white crochet chair designed by Wanders and produced in a limited 2o piece edition that is sold out.

Droog at SoHo House is a members only program but you can always visit their outlets in New York, Tokyo or Amsterdam. I recently visited Droog Amsterdam – or ‘Droog at Home’ as the founders like to call it – and can assure you it is quite an experience.