Scarcity of Workers Increases Use of Robots

(p. B1) PRAGUE — When Zbynek Frolik needed new employees to handle surging orders at his cavernous factories in central Bohemia, he fanned advertisements across the Czech Republic. But in a prosperous economy where nearly everyone had work, there were few takers.
Raising wages didn’t help. Nor did offers to subsidize housing.
So he turned to the robots.
“We can’t find enough humans,” said Mr. Frolik, whose company, Linet, makes state-of-the art hospital beds sold in over 100 countries. “We’re trying to replace people with machines wherever we can.”
Such talk usually conjures visions of a future where employees are no longer needed. In many major economies, companies are experimenting with replacing factory workers, truck drivers and even lawyers with artificial intelligence, raising the specter of a mass displacement of jobs.
But in Eastern Europe, robots are being enlisted as the solution for a shortage of workers. Often they are helping to create new types of jobs as businesses in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland try to stay agile and competitive. Growth in these countries, which became low-cost manufacturing hubs for Europe after the fall of Communism, has averaged 5 percent in recent years, buoyed by the global recovery..

For the full story, see:
Alderman, Liz. “Humans Wanted, But Robots Work.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 17, 2018): B1 & B8.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 16, 2018, and has the title “Robots Ride to the Rescue Where Workers Can’t Be Found.”)

“Vinyl Rose from the Ashes”

(p. A10) LODENICE, Czech Republic — He was a businessman, not a clairvoyant. Zdenek Pelc did not really foresee, a generation ago, that vinyl records would one day make a return from near extinction.
But he was smart enough to keep a vinyl record factory here, a relic of the Communist era, through all those years when albums gave way to CDs and then to iTunes and streaming, and to be ready when vinyl suddenly got hot again.
And that is why this village of 1,800, nestled in a lush furl of the Bohemian hills, improbably finds itself a world leader in the production of vinyl albums.
“I realized when I came to the company 33 years ago that vinyl would be finished one day,” said Mr. Pelc, 64, who now owns GZ Media and serves as president. “But I wanted our company to be the last one to stop making them.”
The trajectory of the company — and the village it once dominated — traces the Czech Republic’s transition to quirky capitalist colt from cranky Communist nag, all played to the kind of rock soundtrack that accompanies many modern Czech tales.
Instead of getting rid of the old equipment and moving CD-making machines into their space — as most music production companies around the world did in the late 1980s and early ’90s — Mr. Pelc kept only enough machines running to meet the dwindling demand, moving the rest into storage and cannibalizing their parts as needed.
“Frankly, if someone had told me back then that vinyl would return, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said.
. . .
“Vinyl rose from the ashes,” Mr. Pelc said happily.
. . .
“From around 2005, the demand for vinyl grew steadily,” said Michael Sterba, GZ Media’s chief executive. “Then, it really took off in the last two or three years, like, whoosh.”
. . .
“Only an idiot thinks this can go on forever,” Mr. Sterba said. “Maybe making vinyl is a fashion that will disappear in a few years. Who knows? No one predicted this.”

For the full story, see:
RICK LYMAN. “LODENICE JOURNAL; Long-Playing Czech Company Rides a Resurgence to the Top.” The New York Times (Fri., AUG. 7, 2015): A10.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date AUG. 6, 2015, and has the title “LODENICE JOURNAL; Czech Company, Pressing Hits for Years on Vinyl, Finds It Has Become One.”)

Irony that Kafka Statue Faces Prague City Government Building

(p. 10) Prague is sprinkled with provocative pieces by Mr. Cerny — a sculpture of a urinating man (directly in front of the Franz Kafka Museum), a statue of the Czech patron saint King Wenceslas sitting on an upside down dead horse.
His most recent installation in Prague is a sculpture of Kafka’s head, set behind the Tesco department store in the center of town. The 36-foot-high head is made up of 42 moving chrome-plated layers, which move both in synchronicity and in opposing directions.
Mr. Cerny’s original idea was a fountain featuring three figures: a robot, referencing the Czech-language writer Karel Capek, who coined the term; a Golem, representing the Yiddish language; and Kafka’s beetle, referring to the German language. “I wanted to remind people that Prague was once a city of three languages,” Mr. Cerny said.
Unfortunately, city water regulations prevented him from placing a fountain there, so instead he came up with the huge reflecting Kafka head, which is based on similar work of his on display in Charlotte, N.C., called “Metalmorphosis.”
“I loved the irony that this sculpture faces a city government building in Prague,” he said. “Imagine you’re angry because the clerks are doing nothing, only saying for you to go to another office and then another office and another until finally you hear, ‘This office is closed.’ And then you walk out of the building, and there’s the huge head of Kafka looking at you, reminding you of the irony.”

For the full story, see:
DAVID FARLEY. “Footsteps; Prague; On the Trail of Kafka’s Legacy.” The New York Times, Travel Section (Sun., DEC. 27, 2015): 10.
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2015, and has the title “Footsteps; On the Trail of Kafka in Prague.”)

Václav Havel Viewed America as the Natural Foe of Evil in the World

(p. C7) Havel’s personal and political philosophy can be summed up in a phrase from his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”: “living within the truth.” The world imposes great burdens on men, Havel argued, the first of which is a collective responsibility to be honest about the society they inhabit. In Havel’s political context, “living within the truth” meant speaking plainly about an inhuman political system–communism–and the lies and humiliating routines it forced its subjects to tell and endure. The bravest testament to this credo was Charter 77, a public appeal to the regime to respect the human rights it claimed to uphold. Havel was one of several co-authors and its main spokesman.
What drove Havel and others to sign the document was the persecution of a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, whose members were accused of “disturbing the peace.” Havel, who would cheekily adopt that malediction as the title for one of his books, soon followed the band to jail for similar offenses against the state. Imprisoned from 1979 to 1983, Havel was denied medical attention and endured great physical pain for his thought crimes. But the communists could not break him, and he refused an offer of early release in exchange for leaving the country. The greatest anguish the future president suffered at the hands of the sclerotic regime, which, in Mr. Zantovsky’s apt phrasing, “elevated oblivion to a method,” was the suppression of his ability to publish and speak freely.
. . .
As Czech president, Havel was a supporter of Western military intervention both in the Balkans and then, more controversially, against Saddam Hussein in 2003. At home and abroad, Havel was moved by the same humanitarian impulse: “Our indifference toward others can after all result in only one thing: the indifference of others towards us,” he said in 1993. This is what Mr. Zantovsky dubs the “Havel Doctrine” and it is rooted in Czechoslovakia’s history of being the victim of foreign invasion and occupation. “Our own historical experience,” Havel said in 1999 on the eve of NATO intervention in Kosovo, “has taught us that evil must be confronted rather than appeased.” The author hesitates to label Havel’s worldview “neoconservative,” and, at least as far as domestic politics are concerned, he is right: On most social and economic issues Havel was decidedly left of center. But Havel personally understood the role of evil in international relations and looked to America as its natural foe.

For the full review, see:
JAMES KIRCHICK. “Disturber of the Peace; Havel wrote passionately about evil, yet he abhorred confrontation.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 6, 2014): C7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 5, 2014, and has the title “Václav Havel: Disturber of the Peace; The dissident wrote passionately about evil, yet he abhorred confrontation.”)

The book under review is:
Zantovsky, Michael. Havel: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 2014.

“Burning Bush” Depicts Communists’ Diabolical Harassment of Jan Palach’s Family

PauhofovaTatianaInBurningBushMovie2013-10-06.jpg “BURNING BUSH; Tatiana Pauhofova in Agnieszka Holland’s story of Prague under Communism.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. C6) The Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s magnificent docudrama, “Burning Bush,” is a three-part mini-series made for HBO Europe that remembers the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring. It begins with the death in 1969 of Jan Palach, a Czech student who set himself on fire as a political protest, and follows the diabolical attempts of the Soviet occupiers to blacken his name by portraying him as a fraud and right-wing tool. The film’s depiction of the Communist regime’s relentless harassment of his family and its sowing of paranoia within the student resistance recalls the 2007 film “The Lives of Others,” about the Stasi’s operations in East Berlin. In the sophisticated worldview of “Burning Bush,” oppression may win in the short term, but the spark that ignites freedom movements, once lighted, can’t be extinguished.

For the full review, see:
STEPHEN HOLDEN. “CRITIC’S NOTEBOOK; Still Meaty, Film Festival Lightens Up.” The New York Times (Mon., September 30, 2013): C1 & C6.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 29, 2013.)

Behind the Iron Curtain, Those Who Opposed “Were to Be Destroyed by “Cutting Them Off Like Slices of Salami””

Iron-CurtainBK2013-05-13.jpg

Source of book image: http://www.opednews.com/populum/uploaded/iron-curtain-20882-20130113-95.jpg

(p. 16) That Soviet tanks carried Moscow-trained agents into Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and East Germany was known in the West at the time and has been well documented since. When those agents set out to produce not only a friendly sphere of Soviet influence but also a cordon of dictatorships reliably responsive to Russian orders, Winston Churchill was moved to warn, just days after the Nazis’ surrender in 1945, that an Iron Curtain was being drawn through the heart of Europe. (He coined the metaphor in a message to President Truman a full year before he used it in public in Fulton, Mo.) And Matyas Rakosi, the “little Stalin” of Hungary, was well known for another apt metaphor, describing how the region’s political, economic, cultural and social oppositions were to be destroyed by “cutting them off like slices of salami.”

Applebaum tracks the salami slicing as typically practiced in Poland, Hungary and Germany, and serves up not only the beef but also the fat, vinegar and garlic in exhausting detail. She shows how the knives were sharpened before the war’s end in Soviet training camps for East European Communists, so that trusted agents could create and control secret police forces in each of the “liberated” nations. She shows how reliable operatives then took charge of all radio broadcasting, the era’s most powerful mass medium. And she demonstrates how the Soviet stooges could then, with surprising speed, harass, persecute and finally ban all independent institutions, from youth groups and welfare agencies to schools, churches and rival political parties.
Along the way, millions of Germans, Poles, Ukrainians and Hungarians were ruthlessly driven from their historic homes to satisfy Soviet territorial ambitions. Millions more were deemed opponents and beaten, imprisoned or hauled off to hard labor in Siberia. In Stalin’s paranoid sphere, not even total control of economic and cultural life was sufficient. To complete the terror, he purged even the Communist leaders of each satellite regime, accusing them of treason and parading them as they made humiliating confessions.
It is good to be reminded of these sordid events, now that more archives are accessible and some witnesses remain alive to recall the horror.

For the full review, see:
MAX FRANKEL. “Stalin’s Shadow.” The New York Times (Sun., November 25, 2012): 16.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 21, 2012.)

The book under review, is:
Applebaum, Anne. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. New York: Doubleday, 2012.

In Whom Can You Trust?

MedvedevKlausObamaToast2010-05-18.jpg“Russian President Medvedev, left, Czech Republic President Klaus, center, and U.S. President Obama, right, toast the treaty’s signing on Thursday.” Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article cited below.

In the photo above, which of these three men would you want to sip champagne with? (Hint: the libertarian is in the middle.)

The photo accompanies this article:
JONATHAN WEISMAN. “Russia Sets Limits on Iran Sanctions.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, APRIL 9, 2010): A8.
(Note: the online version of the article had the title “U.S., Russia Focus on Iran Sanctions.”)