France Champions!

Well the French might not be able to organise the colours of their flag on a fly past, but they can win a world cup final. Croatia started brightly and put considerable pressure on France, but their defence held up and they never looked like losing control; they simply remained patient and took their chances. Sure they had some luck, but it’s hard to argue with 4-2. For all those who think France may not have deserved it, consider that they were also the beaten finalists of the Euro 2016 tournament. Consistency is a big factor in winning trophies, and France seems to have mastered it.

It was nice to see Didier Deschamps join Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer in the small club of men who have won the FIFA World Cup both as a player and a coach. I still remember Deschamps lifting the trophy in 1998, having captained the side throughout the tournament. Good for him.

It wasn’t so nice to wake up this morning to discover the good-natured celebrations which took place in Paris after the game had turned into full-on riots with widespread looting. It made me glad I wasn’t there. Whereas it might be tempting to blame it all on African or North African minorities, I suspect there were others involved too. Like many European cities these days, Paris seems to have a lot of people who seek to destroy it given the slightest opportunity – and that includes those who have allowed the situation to get so bad.

There is much of this sort of sentiment going around Twitter this morning:

People made similar remarks when France won in 1998, although few attribute the footballing success of Italy, Spain, or Portugal to their teams’ relative homogeneity. The point they’re trying to make is immigration is good, but it ought to be noted that these players or their forebears came to France solely because that’s who colonised them a century or two ago. The French team is therefore as much an advert for colonisation as immigration; I’d prefer it if we just called them French and didn’t concern ourselves with their skin colour. As someone has noted:

Indeed. Well done France, I’m happy for you all. It’s just a shame about the rioting.

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Germany’s Exit

Well, I’m still enjoying this world cup, even if the knockout stage kickoff times in Thailand are 9pm and 1am respectively. France v Argentina was one hell of a match, and if Kylian Mbappé keeps playing like that France are in with a good shot of winning the whole thing; Argentina never looked like serious contenders, only scraping through the group stages. Portugal were a disappointment, deservedly beaten by a faster and more hungry Uruguay. The pass which Edison Cavani sent across field to Luis Suárez was sublime, as was his header into the back of the net a few seconds later. Unfortunately it looks as though Cavani will miss the quarter final with France through injury, otherwise it would be a very close game to call. They may still do it.

I was very pleased with Russia knocking out Spain. Not only because of my connections with Russia, but because Spain really were the overwhelming favourites and there was something poetic about Russia pulling off such a victory in Moscow. Also, it generated some amusing memes, my favourite being this one:

So England play tonight with a chance to book a quarter final spot with Argentina, Portugal, Spain, and Germany out of competition and very nearly Croatia and Belgium too. I felt sorry for the Japanese last night, but that winning goal from Belgium was superb.

By far the most amusing sight for me this world cup was seeing Korea’s Song Heung-min tap the ball into an empty German net while Manuel Neuer was up in the opposition half. Oh boy did I laugh. But I believe Germany’s premature and ungraceful exit is related to something I’ve written about before on here:

It has long been my opinion that the Bundesliga is run for the benefit of Bayern Munich and the national football team, whereby anyone who shows a smidgen of talent in the other clubs is snapped up by Bayern Munich who immediately trebles the player’s wages.  Other clubs have almost no chance of competing unless they could stumble upon a few youngsters and assemble a side that could be held together long enough to win before the bigger clubs came and swiped their best players, as Klopp managed to do.  As a method of winning the World Cup it proved successful as Bayern Munich players formed the core of the German team that won in Brazil in 2014, but I am doubtful that it benefit the long term health of German football.

Germany draws heavily from Bayern Munich when selecting its national team, the Bavarian club providing 6 of the starting 11 in their opening game against Mexico. The trouble is, Bayern Munich won the Bundesliga this season by 21 points. In the Champions League they got relatively easy draws before coming up against Real Madrid in the semi finals who made short work of them. In other words, Bayern Munich – whose players form the core of the German national team – had seen very little by way of proper opposition all season, and perhaps even longer. When some of these players turned up at the world cup they may well have only played a handful of genuinely tough matches against world class players in the last two seasons. This makes the decision to cut Man City’s Leroy Sane from the squad all the more baffling. Little wonder they struggled against the likes of Mexico, Sweden, and Korea, and crashed out in the group stages.

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Youthful Looks

I’m no fan of Australia’s David Pocock, but this is pretty cool:

But what really amused me was this comment:

This is meant as a dig at Israel Folau for his anti-gay remarks. So how’s old Izzy looking these days?

Oh. That link between homophobia and ugliness is looking a little tenuous, isn’t it?

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2018 FIFA World Cup Revisited

I might have to take back what I said earlier about the FIFA World Cup currently underway in Russia. I’d feared it would be a dreary affair but, while the standard of football hasn’t been that high, the games have certainly been good. Portugal against Spain was a cracker, with Ronaldo’s equaliser as sublime a free-kick as you’ll see. Iran gave Spain a good run, Morocco ran them ragged last night, and Iran versus Portugal was good albeit ruined by the VAR. I watched Sweden versus Germany in a pub with a solitary German and everyone else supporting Sweden; it pains me to say it, but Tony Kroos’ last minute goal was wonderful, and for that alone they deserved the win.

It’s been most amusing to watch Argentina struggle against Iceland and then get thrashed by Croatia, who are looking good. Messi has long been accused of not playing well for his country and thus far in this tournament he’s been absent. France haven’t looked very impressive, but they’ve done enough and who knows what they can pull out of the bag? England have got off to a good start, and while people are downplaying their 6-1 thrashing of Panama, one must remember England traditionally struggled against the minnows and they can only play the team in front of them. I’ll miss the game against Belgium because I’ve stupidly booked myself on a flight to Thailand; even more stupidly I’d booked the return flight during the final, so I’ve had to re-book it for the next day at no small expense. Grrrr.

Russia seems to be doing a good job of hosting the tournament with visitors being rather surprised to find happy, welcoming people interested in having fun instead of granite-faced thugs with shaved heads waiting to slaughter LGBTs in the streets. Not for the first time have foreigners discovered individual Russians are a lot different from how they are collectively portrayed.

So in hindsight I was wrong: this tournament has been highly entertaining so far, and I look forward to the rest of it.

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2018 FIFA World Cup

So the FIFA World Cup kicks off today in Russia, which will probably be as much about how awfully backward and racist the Russians are as it will be about football, at least where the media is concerned. From what I’ve read so far, people seem to think the bulk of travelling football fans will be on the LGBT spectrum and risking their lives as roaming bands of Cossacks hunt them down. There has already been criticism from gay rights groups that Liverpool’s Egyptian star Mohammed Salah posed for photos with Chechen ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, who has a nasty reputation that is thoroughly deserved. If Salah had the faintest idea who Kadyrov was, or where Chechnya was, I’d be amazed.

For my part, I’m finding it hard to get excited about this world cup. I don’t know if it’s an age thing, but international football tournaments don’t hold the same excitement for me as they once did. I don’t remember too much about Mexico ’86 or Italia ’90 but I know they were massive events. USA ’94 I remember better and it was pretty good, and France ’98 was magnificent. I was a keen follower of British and European football in the year before France ’98, and I was desperately looking forward to whole rosters of star players clashing. Just look at the lineup for the Netherlands for example, and that  was just one country.

Nowadays, I feel there’s a dearth of superstar players to look out for, and no massive clash of teams bursting with talent. The last seriously talented side to take part in the World Cup or Euros was the great Spanish team from 2008-12, and they clobbered everyone. Since then, it’s all been mediocre sides with the occasional star player who may or may not show up, or surprise packages like Uruguay in 2010 or Wales and Iceland in 2016. The last Euro competition was possibly the worst in terms of football quality I can remember. There were very few decent players: the standout player in one of the best sides was Dimitri Payet of France, a journeyman at West Ham who was sold to Marseille a year later. Paul Pogba, Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, and the other superstars of the national leagues did very little of note, and Christiano Ronaldo was best known for his coming off injured in the final amid floods of tears and miraculously turning into the coach for the last 20 minutes of the game. The final was a dreary affair, with the solitary goal being scored by Portugal’s Eder who was a bit-part player for Swansea City. He didn’t even make it in the starting XI when they played West Brom in a cup match earlier in the season, yet there he was deciding the outcome of the second biggest international football tournament on the planet. This wasn’t a repeat of the Greek unknowns winning in 2004, it was simply there isn’t much talent around. Who are we all supposed to watch this time around? Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar? Who else? Harry Kane? Hardly.

I’d had the idea international football was on the decline for a while, but it was confirmed in Euro 2016 when Croatia (who had beaten Spain in the group stage) played Portugal in the first knockout round. It was set up to be a very good match but as I listened while driving from Exeter to Basingstoke on my way back to Dover and then France, it was clear neither team really wanted to be there. It was absolutely dire, and the commentators were scathing, their frustration boiling over. As they put it, neither side showed any interest in playing football, let alone winning, over the full 90 minutes plus 30 of extra time. I thought the same when I saw later games, including the final. There was nothing like the determination, passion, and desire I saw in France ’98 or Italia ’90, or the Euros in 2000. Just a bunch of players who looked as though they’d been roped into doing something they didn’t really want to.

My theory is players are far more individualistic these days, being multi-millionaires in a way that all but the top stars of France ’98 could only have dreamed of. Their primary loyalty is to themselves and their focus is on their bank accounts, sponsorship deals, and whatever their agents tell them. Most of their money comes from their club so they put in considerable efforts in the league, although some don’t even bother doing that. So while I think clubs have managed to retain loyalty from players and buy their efforts, the national teams have been less successful. Does playing for their country mean much to these players any more? Does winning? I don’t know. What I can say is a lot of players don’t seem interested in playing internationals, perhaps fearing injury which will cost them a domestic season or perhaps a whole career. Are you really going to go 100% into tackles in a group game against a third-string side and risk an injury which could cost you tens of millions in wages? Probably not.

But we’ll see. Maybe this tournament in Russia will prove to be every bit as exciting as France ’98 or Mexico ’86 complete with titanic clashes in the final knockout stages, but I doubt it. I think it’ll be a dreary affair like Euro 2016 which, when it ends, will have people asking “What did I just watch?”

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Allowable Tolerance

This story is refreshing:

Jaelene Hinkle’s decision not to play for the U.S. women’s national soccer team last summer was, she said, a simple one. Because of her religious beliefs, and a decision by U.S. Soccer to highlight LGBTQ pride month with special jerseys during their June 2017 friendlies, Hinkle declined a call-up from the team, something she said she had dreamed about her entire life.

Note she didn’t make a fuss, or refuse to wear the jersey at a critical moment. She just passed up the opportunity to play for the national team because they wanted her to wear a gay pride shirt, and this went against her religious beliefs. This is her right, and given the sacrifice involved I’m somewhat impressed by the strength of her convictions.

She is playing for the North Carolina Courage in the National Women’s Soccer League; during a game Wednesday night against the Portland Thorns in Oregon, fans booed Hinkle, while some waved pride flags. One fan carried a sign with the words “personal reasons” — the reason publicly cited when Hinkle declined the call-up last year — in rainbow letters.

So fans booed her. A bit intolerant, but no big deal. And given this is women’s football, those pride flags might have been waving as a matter of course. But this is refreshing:

Hinkle did not speak after the match, but teammate Jessica McDonald expressed support for her. “She is high on her faith, and in my honest [opinion] that’s absolutely incredible,” McDonald said, according to the Associated Press. “If she’s for God, then that’s fine, that’s great if that’s what keeps her going in her life and keeps positivity in her life, then let that be. Everyone has their opinions about the Bible and God. It’s obviously not in my control what she thinks.

Blimey! Tolerance for other’s beliefs? I think I’ve just stepped back in time.

“At the end of the day, I’m still going to be friends with her. We have no problems with each other. She’s never said anything bad about me. She never said anything bad about anybody. So, for people to pass on that kind of judgment on another human being, I think it’s sort of uncalled for. She’s got her opinions. That’s fine. Everybody does. It hasn’t affected our team at all.”

A footballer seems to be showing more maturity than the whole of western academia combined.

Paul Riley, who coaches the Courage, said he heard the boos Wednesday, and that he supports his player.

“She’s got a good heart, and she battled through the game. It’s not an easy thing for her,” Riley said, according to the AP. “I give her a lot of credit, to be perfectly honest. Whatever her beliefs are, whatever she believes in, that’s her. It doesn’t affect the team. It doesn’t seem to affect anybody on the team.”

I think I need a lie down.

Now, contrast that story with this one:

Wallabies superstar Israel Folau has again created controversy on social media, after posting a seemingly homophobic Instagram comment.

Folau posted an image on Twitter and Instagram on Wednesday night in reference to his latest injury setback, comparing an individual’s plan to God’s plan.

Instagram user @mike_sephton commented on the image, writing: “@izzyfolau, what was gods (sic) plan for gay people??”.

Folau replied: “HELL…Unless they repent of their sins and turn to God.”

Predictably:

New Zealand’s players have added to the criticism of Australia full-back Israel Folau over anti-gay comments.

TJ Perenara, who has 42 caps, has joined fellow scrum-half Brad Weber in condemning his remarks.

“Let it go on record that I am 100% against the comments that were made by Israel. It was not OK to say that,” he said on Twitter.

“It’s not an attitude I want to see in the game I love. There is no justification for such harmful comments.

Sorry, but what’s harmful about these comments? For a start, Folau was merely answering a question put to him on social media, not standing up and declaring a formal position. What was he supposed to do, lie? He’s a Christian, and many Christians believe – rightly or wrongly – that homosexuality is a sin and its practitioners will go to hell. Aren’t we supposed to respect the religious views and practices of others? Or does that only apply to certain religions? We know the answer to that one. And in any case, if you don’t share Folau’s Christian beliefs, why do you believe in hell?

“As professional rugby players, whether we like it or not, we are role models for a lot of young people.”

And why would a player with strong Christian views not make as good a role model as one who is pro-gay?

Rugby Australia said it would not punish Folau for the remarks,

I expect because he is both very good and very popular. But good on them to resist calls for him to be punished.

but Waikato Chiefs player Weber earlier posted on Twitter: “Sick of us players staying quiet on some of this stuff. I can’t stand that I have to play this game that I love with people, like Folau, who say what he’s saying.”

So you don’t want to play rugby with people who hold certain beliefs. Note Folau didn’t say he hates gays, or doesn’t want to play with them. He simply said, in response to a question, he thought they’d end up in hell. For my part, I’m confident I’m going to end up in hell along with half my friends, this really isn’t something I worry too much about and nor should anyone.

“My cousin and her partner, and my aunty and her partner are some of the most kind, caring and loving people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.

Did Folau suggest they weren’t?

“To think that I play against someone that says they’ll go to hell for being gay disgusts me.”

Did Folau say he’s disgusted? Did he say he doesn’t want to play against anyone in particular? No, yet he’s supposedly the intolerant one. Folau has written a lengthy statement here which quite clearly lays out his religious beliefs and how they relate to sin and repentance – of any kind. If these beliefs are outlawed, we might as well ban Christianity. Perhaps that’s the plan?

Other players have thankfully taken a more mature approach:

David Pocock and Israel Folau might disagree fundamentally on the issue of LGBT rights but the Wallabies are united in believing their diametrically opposed views will not have an impact on the Australia team.

Pocock … was an outspoken advocate for equal marriage rights for same sex couples ahead of last year’s Australian referendum on the matter and has in the past called out homophobic abuse on the field of play.

“There’s nothing personal towards each other,” the fullback told reporters in Brisbane.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him … we’re both grown men and talk about things openly. We just had an open chat about our different beliefs.

“We respect each other. It doesn’t change the way we feel about each other. It won’t change anything when we step out onto the field. I’ll be there to cover him and same with him. We’re 100 percent behind each other.”

“I’ve got family who have those views and we’ve had it out over the years,” Pocock told Fairfax Media in Canberra after the match.

“The bottom line is they’re family. You talk about it in a civil way … and when you do that you realise we’ve got far more common ground than we have in difference of belief.

“I just don’t see who wins if we aren’t able to relate to each other as humans and keep talking about things rather than having these really nasty polarising debates to decide who is and isn’t part of our tribe based on their beliefs.

“We all lose something when we aren’t able to engage with people just because we disagree on something.”

Now up until this point I thought David Pocock was the most self-righteous prick to ever set foot on a rugby field, but full credit to him for the maturity and tolerance he’s shown here. Maybe he’s picked up some ideas watching American women’s soccer? The Kiwis could certainly learn something from them.

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Drought Ended

I’ve written before (here and here) about the parlous state of Australian rugby union. On Saturday the Waratahs beat the Highlanders 41-12 ending a run of 40 straight defeats for Australian teams against New Zealand opposition. The last time they secured a win over their trans-Tasman rivals was in May 2016, almost 2 years ago. At the international level, Australia haven’t won the Bledisloe Cup since 2002.

With France in their second or third generation of consistently underperforming and England having a lousy Six Nations championship in 2018, the Rugby World Cup is in danger of becoming as much a farce as it’s rugby league equivalent if this keeps up.

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The Downside of Diversity Quotas

There’s a row going on in South Africa between a black former rugby player, Ashwin Willemse, and two white former players Nick Mallett and Naas Botha. The video in the link shows Willemse objecting strongly to suggestions from the other two that he was a “quota player” during a post-match discussion on the South African Supersports channel. He then walks off the stage, saying he refuses to be criticised by people who played in the apartheid era. There was obviously a build-up to this which the public hasn’t yet seen, and without knowing what’s been said by whom it’s difficult to say if Willemse is overreacting or not.

Naturally, this being the modern South Africa, people have leaped in on both sides even if they couldn’t have named a single Springbok player before last weekend. Given this is all happening 23 years after Nelson Mandela famously handed the Webb Ellis trophy to Francois Pienaar while wearing the Springbok jersey, it’s rather depressing. Fans and pundits always have idiots among them, but I’d have hoped former players would have the sense not to bring race into any discussion on South African rugby, especially on television.

However, my main point is that this is a good demonstration of how damaging diversity quotas are. I don’t know if Ashwin Willemse was selected to the Springboks on merit (I never saw him play) but the fact that quotas for black players existed leaves the door wide open for people to accuse him of being a quota player. And no matter how good the player is, there will always be some who think they were only picked because they were black. I’m sure there are people out there insane enough to think Bryan Habana was only picked because he was black; the problem with quotas is nobody knows for sure who is there on merit and who is there to make up numbers, and it hands ammunition to the group’s enemies. As I said in this post:

The real losers from affirmative action policies aimed at helping minorities is not people who fall outside the designated groups but genuinely competent minorities who not only have to sit alongside less-capable colleagues of the same sex or skin colour, but now have their own competencies called into question.

As Ashwin Willemse is finding out, this question mark can hang over their heads for a long time indeed. I suspect we’re going to have a lot of highly capable women in the corporate world retiring in frustration after never having quite convinced everyone they were there on merit. This is what happens when you select some who aren’t.

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Double-Edged Swords

Staying on the subject of Lance Armstrong, I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast on the recommendation of regular commenter William of Ockham in the comments of this post, where I wrote:

By all accounts, it sounds as though Armstrong was a nasty, bullying, vindictive piece of work. This is why, when he fell from grace, few people were willing to stand up for him and many delighted in his comeuppance. Had he simply been a cyclist who doped along with everyone else and got caught, he’d have had a good chance of re-ingratiating himself with the fans and public.

In the podcast, Armstrong deals with the above charge in a way which makes perfect sense, at least to me. He says the attitude required to win at all costs when on the bike can be all-consuming; he says in order to beat a competitor he will need to hate the guy, and find something to hate him for, even if he actually quite likes him. He said the problem is, when you get off the bike after the race, you need to remind yourself you don’t actually hate him. He and Rogan discuss the theory that top-level performers are often slightly mad, and come to the agreement there is probably some truth to it. Armstrong said his ruthless, take-no-prisoners attitude served him brilliantly when on the bike, but was his downfall when he applied it to the doping accusations and other areas of his non-racing life.

I can understand this, and I expect a similar thing happened with Tiger Woods who’s catastrophic fall from the pinnacle of golf was initiated by his wife finding out about his extra-marital affairs, and her subsequent reaction. Here’s a recent article on Tiger’s early years:

Benedict, a New York Times bestselling author, and Keteyian, an 11-time Emmy Award winning CBS contributor, write that Tiger’s relationship with his father is responsible for his astonishing success – but also laid the roots for his ruin.

Earl subjected his son to psychological warfare in his youth and called him a ‘little n*****’ during brutal training sessions to improve his golf game.

But another lesson that Earl appears to have taught his son was about how to behave around women.

According to the book,  Earl’s womanizing was ‘well known’ to his family and that Tiger would break down in tears on the phone to friends talking about how he cheated on Kultida, his mother.

Earl’s habits included drinking, smoking and pornography that ‘drove a wedge between him and his family’.

So you have a highly talented kid driven incredibly hard to succeed by his father and subjected to forms of abuse which he channels into his sport. As a recipe for becoming one of the greatest golfers of all time it obviously worked wonders, but left him utterly unable to manage when things started to fall apart around him. Landing in a situation where the “work doubly hard and win at all costs” mentality is no use and only makes things worse, like Armstrong he found that’s all he knew.

I can relate to this. A few years back I went on a course entitled Managing Personal Relations and one of the things I learned about myself is the talents which make me a half-decent project engineer are ill-applied to personal relationships. Engineering is a subject which deals mostly with facts, logic and demonstrations of both. If you want to win an argument in the engineering world, you must overcome the opposition with superior facts and logic, demonstrated simply. Coupled with this, you often need to drive results by applying bone-headed determination and sheer force of will. Both are appalling ways to try to resolve personal, human issues which you face either at work or outside, and the training course was designed firstly to show where we were going wrong, and secondly to fix them and offer alternatives. It was probably the best training course I’ve done, and it made me realise my dealings with people needed to change as browbeating people into seeing my superior logic was not going to result in successful relationships – especially where women are concerned!

I expect, just as STEM folk have to learn to deal with non-STEM folk in order to maintain good relations, top-level sportsmen have to adjust their attitudes when not competing. I imagine those who participate in the more individualistic sports, like cycling and golf, find this harder than pure team players.

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Fair Weather Friends

From the BBC:

Lance Armstrong has agreed to pay $5m (£3.5m) to the US government to settle a long-running lawsuit that could have cost him $100m (£71m) in damages.

The American, 46, was accused of fraud by cheating while riding for the publicly funded US Postal Service team.

I was aware that Lance Armstrong was facing a colossal lawsuit from the federal government, but didn’t know the details. I always assumed it was because sports doping is seen as a criminal matter in the US, which it generally isn’t elsewhere. Then I listened to the Joe Rogan podcast with Armstrong and found out it was for different reasons. As the BBC says:

The US Postal Service team ran from 1996 to 2004, with Armstrong winning seven Tour titles between 1999 and 2005.

So the reason the federal government is suing Armstrong is because the US Postal Service sponsored his team when he was doping. Now sure, there’s a case to answer but because it’s the federal government, well:

The team were paid about $32m (£23m) between 2000 and 2004, with the government potentially able to pursue ‘treble’ damages under the lawsuit, resulting in the $100m figure.

I suspect the reason why the case has been settled at “only” $5m is because, as Armstrong’s legal team always claimed, this is about damages and (according to the podcast) no less than 3 studies were carried out demonstrating that the US Postal Service benefited enormously from the publicity surrounding Armstrong’s victories (which was the whole point). I doubt the US Postal Service suffered any noticeable monetary or reputational loss when, 8 years after his last win and 9 since they stopped sponsoring Tour de France teams, it transpired their talisman was doping. I strongly suspect the $5m is symbolic, a chance for a few individuals in the federal government to advance up the career ladder and show the public they disapprove of cheating. Armstrong made the point that the reason cycling has been hit so hard is because the sport has no lobbyists in Washington DC working on their behalf, unlike banks for example.

The lesson here is never, ever do business with the government in any form unless you have protection in place, like a Russian krysha. If things go sour, and someone is looking to make a name for himself*, you could find the full force of the state bearing down on you, making up the rules as they go along.

*Ask Martha Stewart about that.

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