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Posts tagged ‘Land of the Volcanoes’

Icelandic language at risk; robots, computers can’t grasp it

April 22, 2017

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — When an Icelander arrives at an office building and sees “Solarfri” posted, they need no further explanation for the empty premises: The word means “when staff get an unexpected afternoon off to enjoy good weather.”

The people of this rugged North Atlantic island settled by Norsemen some 1,100 years ago have a unique dialect of Old Norse that has adapted to life at the edge of the Artic. Hundslappadrifa, for example, means “heavy snowfall with large flakes occurring in calm wind.”

But the revered Icelandic language, seen by many as a source of identity and pride, is being undermined by the widespread use of English, both for mass tourism and in the voice-controlled artificial intelligence devices coming into vogue.

Linguistics experts, studying the future of a language spoken by fewer than 400,000 people in an increasingly globalized world, wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the Icelandic tongue. Former President Vigdis Finnbogadottir told The Associated Press that Iceland must take steps to protect its language. She is particularly concerned that programs be developed so the language can be easily used in digital technology.

“Otherwise, Icelandic will end in the Latin bin,” she warned. Teachers are already sensing a change among students in the scope of their Icelandic vocabulary and reading comprehension. Anna Jonsdottir, a teaching consultant, said she often hears teenagers speak English among themselves when she visits schools in Reykjavik, the capital.

She said 15-year-old students are no longer assigned a volume from the Sagas of Icelanders, the medieval literature chronicling the early settlers of Iceland. Icelanders have long prided themselves of being able to fluently read the epic tales originally penned on calfskin.

Most high schools are also waiting until senior year to read author Halldor Laxness, the 1955 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, who rests in a small cemetery near his farm in West Iceland. A number of factors combine to make the future of the Icelandic language uncertain. Tourism has exploded in recent years, becoming the country’s single biggest employer, and analysts at Arion Bank say one in two new jobs is being filled by foreign labor.

That is increasing the use of English as a universal communicator and diminishing the role of Icelandic, experts say. “The less useful Icelandic becomes in people’s daily life, the closer we as a nation get to the threshold of giving up its use,” said Eirikur Rognvaldsson, a language professor at the University of Iceland.

He has embarked on a three-year study of 5,000 people that will be the largest inquiry ever into the use of the language. “Preliminary studies suggest children at their first-language acquisition are increasingly not exposed to enough Icelandic to foster a strong base for later years,” he said.

Concerns for the Icelandic language are by no means new. In the 19th century, when its vocabulary and syntax were heavily influenced by Danish, independence movements fought to revive Icelandic as the common tongue, central to the claim that Icelanders were a nation.

Since Iceland became fully independent from Denmark in 1944, its presidents have long championed the need to protect the language. Asgeir Jonsson, an economics professor at the University of Iceland, said without a unique language Iceland could experience a brain drain, particularly among certain professions.

“A British town with a population the size of Iceland has far fewer scientists and artists, for example,” he said. “They’ve simply moved to the metropolis.” The problem is compounded because many new computer devices are designed to recognize English but they do not understand Icelandic.

“Not being able to speak Icelandic to voice-activated fridges, interactive robots and similar devices would be yet another lost field,” Jonsson said. Icelandic ranks among the weakest and least-supported language in terms of digital technology — along with Irish Gaelic, Latvian, Maltese and Lithuanian — according to a report by the Multilingual Europe Technology Alliance assessing 30 European languages.

Iceland’s Ministry of Education estimates about 1 billion Icelandic krona, or $8.8 million, is needed for seed funding for an open-access database to help tech developers adapt Icelandic as a language option.

Svandis Svavarsdottir, a member of Iceland’s parliament for the Left-Green Movement, said the government should not be weighing costs when the nation’s cultural heritage is at stake. “If we wait, it may already be too late,” she said.


In world first, Iceland to require firms to prove equal pay

March 08, 2017

LONDON (AP) — Iceland will be the first country in the world to make employers prove they offer equal pay regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexuality or nationality, the Nordic nation’s government said Wednesday — International Women’s Day.

The government said it will introduce legislation to parliament this month, requiring all employers with more than 25 staff members to obtain certification to prove they give equal pay for work of equal value.

While other countries, and the U.S. state of Minnesota, have equal-salary certificate policies, Iceland is thought to be the first to make it mandatory for both private and public firms. The North Atlantic island nation, which has a population of about 330,000, wants to eradicate the gender pay gap by 2022.

Social Affairs and Equality Minister Thorsteinn Viglundsson said “the time is right to do something radical about this issue.” “Equal rights are human rights,” he said. “We need to make sure that men and women enjoy equal opportunity in the workplace. It is our responsibility to take every measure to achieve that.”

Iceland has been ranked the best country in the world for gender equality by the World Economic Forum, but Icelandic women still earn, on average, 14 to 18 percent less than men. In October thousands of Icelandic women left work at 2:38 p.m. and demonstrated outside parliament to protest the gender pay gap. Women’s rights groups calculate that after that time each day, women are working for free.

The new legislation is expected to be approved by Iceland’s parliament because it has support from both the center-right government and opposition lawmakers. The government hopes to implement it by 2020.

Iceland has introduced other measures to boost women’s equality, including quotas for female participation on government committees and corporate boards. Such measures have proven controversial in some countries, but have wide support across Iceland’s political spectrum.

Viglundsson said some people had argued the equal-pay law imposes unneeded bureaucracy on firms, and is not necessary because the pay gap is closing. “It is a burden to put on companies to have to comply with a law like this,” he acknowledged. “But we put such burdens on companies all the time when it comes to auditing your annual accounts or turning in your tax report.

“You have to dare to take new steps, to be bold in the fight against injustice.”

China’s Arctic ambitions take shape in remote Iceland valley

November 16, 2016

LAUGAR, Iceland (AP) — In a remote valley near the Arctic Circle where the wind whips the coarse yellow grass, China and Iceland are preparing to look to the sky — and a shared future. Construction workers are building a research facility to study the Northern Lights, whose spectacular streaks of color light up Iceland’s winter skies. Funded by China’s Polar Research Institute, the facility will house Chinese, Icelandic and international scientists when it opens next year.

This cement shell is a concrete achievement in the burgeoning relationship between the rising Asian superpower, population 1.37 billion, and this tiny North Atlantic island nation of 330,000 people. It may seem a lopsided friendship, but both countries perceive benefits. Beijing wants an Arctic ally as climate change opens up new sea routes and resource-extraction opportunities, while Iceland seeks heavyweight friends to anchor it against stormy economic waves.

“It is better to be a friend to everyone when you are small than be an enemy to anybody,” said Reinhard Reynisson, director of the nonprofit company building the Aurora Observatory. Reynisson speaks with the confidence of a country that has weathered earthquakes, volcanoes, famine and financial meltdown since it was settled by Vikings in the 9th century. But China’s growing interest has also aroused suspicions among some Icelanders, who are wary of big powers trying to grab their resources, whether fish, energy or land.

“We are a very small country, we are only 300,000 people, so we don’t look at our independence as an automatic thing,” said Asgeir Jonsson, an economist at the University of Iceland. “It’s something that you have to protect and look after.

“In our history, we have a long story of fighting with the bigger powers around us over fish and the resources that we have. That has left its mark on the population.” Iceland was nudged in China’s direction by financial calamity. When the global credit crunch hit in 2008, Iceland’s banks — whose debts had ballooned to more than 10 times the country’s GDP — collapsed. Iceland’s currency nosedived, unemployment soared, and Iceland was forced to go the International Monetary Fund and the European Union for bailouts. It also began looking for new economic partners to help it rebuild — and China was willing.

In 2010, the two countries agreed currency swaps between Iceland’s krona and China’s yuan, and in 2013 they signed a free trade agreement — the first between China and a European country. With Iceland’s support, China was granted observer status in 2013 at the Arctic Council, whose core members are Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, the United States and Iceland.

It also attends annual Arctic Circle Assemblies hosted by Iceland — gatherings of politicians, officials, scientists and businesspeople to discuss the future of the region. “China’s got a broad range of Arctic interests — economic, scientific, political, strategic,” said Anne-Marie Brady, editor in chief of the Polar Journal and a global fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. “But the main thing it wants at the moment would be to make sure it has a seat at any decision-making table and has access to any rights that are up for grabs. So it’s great to have a friendly state like Iceland.”

Some of the plans discussed by the two countries have been grandly ambitious, such as making a deep-sea port in a northern Iceland fjord to create a major shipping hub on the Northern Sea Route. It remains unbuilt, but the economic relationship between the two countries is growing steadily.

Iceland has granted the China National Offshore Oil Company permission to explore in Iceland’s waters, and Beijing has tapped Icelandic expertise in geothermal power, a major industry in volcanic Iceland and a potential source of clean energy for China.

Last year, Chinese automaker Geely — owner of Volvo Cars— announced it was investing $45.5 million in Carbon Recycling International, an Icelandic company that operates the world’s first renewable methanol plant. Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is working with Icelandic mobile phone firms and a state-owned Chinese firm has signed a deal to fund a new aluminum smelter in northwest Iceland.

The Chinese Embassy in Reykjavik says bilateral trade, “though still small in terms of volume, is growing rapidly.” In the first nine months of 2016, Iceland’s imports from China were worth $330 million and its exports $77 million, a year-on-year increase of 12.6 percent.

In an email to The Associated Press, the embassy said China could benefit from Iceland’s “cutting-edge technologies in renewable energy, life-science (and) carbon-fiber industries,” as well as its fresh fish, meat, dairy products and mineral water. In return, China can provide Iceland with a wide range of Chinese-made goods.

Chinese tourists — whose numbers rose from 26,000 in 2014 to an estimated 60,000 this year— are helping to drive a tourism boom that has been the savior of Iceland’s economy since the financial crisis.

Cozying up to Beijing also gets tiny Iceland noticed by much larger nations. Brady notes that Iceland’s politicians have become adept at “playing the big powers off each other.” “They are getting a lot more attention from the United States in recent years because of their perceived very good relationship with China,” she said. “And yet what the ordinary people think about that is often quite different from their government. … the population has some misgivings about this close relationship.”

Those misgivings reached a peak five years ago, when multimillionaire Chinese businessman Huang Nubo tried to buy a 300 square kilometer (120 square mile) chunk of remote northeast Iceland to build an eco-resort. Strong public opposition led the Icelandic government to block the purchase in 2011 — in part because no foreign buyer had ever bought so much land.

Suspicion lingered when the Aurora Observatory was announced for a sparsely populated region 250 miles (400 kilometers) northeast of Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik. Pascal Heyman, a former official at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said in 2014 that the Chinese might want to use the equipment to keep an eye on NATO airspace.

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to observe the aurora borealis, or northern lights. The colorful phenomenon is caused when a magnetic solar wind slams into the Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists hope the observatory will help them learn about the interaction between the sun and the Earth’s magnetic field, which could help predict space weather.

The observatory is behind schedule — in part due to a shortage of building contractors in booming Iceland — but is due to open next fall. It will include a visitors’ center, and local people have begun to capitalize on the upcoming economic opportunities, opening Aurora guesthouses and thermal baths.

Reynisson said the initial local skepticism about China’s intentions has faded. “Now you might hear someone say, ‘They will never finish it’ — not that they are spying on us or doing something totally different from what is said to be done,” he said. “Why build a station here in the valley to spy on us? Much easier to rearrange some of their satellites to spy on us.”

Lawless reported from Reykjavik, Iceland.

Iceland left-green alliance fails to form government

24 November 2016 Thursday

Iceland’s Left-Green movement said Wednesday it had failed in its bid to form a new coalition government, three weeks after snap elections triggered by the Panama Papers scandal.

Allied with the anti-establishment Pirate Party, the Social Democrats and the Bright Future party, the Left-Green had been in talks since Sunday in a bid to forge a governing coalition with the center-right Reform Party.

“It is evident that not all the parties are convinced to continue these negotiations so I have decided to stop them and I don’t think that there is ground to continue,” Katrin Jakobsdottir, the leader of the Left-Green movement, the second largest party, told state broadcaster RUV.

Jakobsdottir said she had informed the president of her decision.

It was not yet known what would happen next.

Asked if she would now return the power to form a government to the president, she replied: “I’m going to sleep on it.”

Pirates co-chairman, Birgitta Jonsdottir, had said prior to the start of the talks on Sunday that she was optimistic the five parties would reach consensus on major issues.

“The people want very much to see improvement in both the work in the parliament and the image of the parliament”, Jonsdottir said at the time.

Since its independence in 1944, Iceland has only seen one center-left government, which emerged from the 2009 election after the 2008 financial collapse.

Led by the largest election winner Independence Party, the center-right coalition failed to find common ground over a range of divisive issues including relations with the European Union, institutional reform and fishing.

The October 29 snap vote, prompted by a massive tax scandal ensnaring several Icelandic officials, saw the Pirates become the third largest party with 10 seats.

The Panama Papers, released in April, fueled the resignation of former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson and prompted the snap vote.

Source: World Bulletin.


Pirate Party make gains as center-right hangs on in Iceland

October 30, 2016

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — The radical Pirate Party made gains but not a breakthrough in Iceland’s election, as returns Sunday showed that voters favored the incumbent center-right Independence Party over the upstart advocates of direct democracy and digital freedom.

No party emerged with a majority of parliament seats from an election dominated by public discontent at the establishment after years of financial crisis and political turmoil. With almost all votes from the balloting Saturday counted, the Independence Party had 29 percent support and the Pirate Party 14.5 percent, putting them in third place behind the Left-Green movement at 15.9 percent.

The result should give the Independence Party about 21 seats in Iceland’s 63-seat Parliament, the Althingi, with the Left-Greens and Pirates winning 10 each. It’s a better performance than expected for the Independents, who have governed in coalition since 2013.

The Pirates’ result fell short of what some polls had suggested — and what the party’s fleet of energetic volunteers and supporters had hoped. Founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and internet freedom advocates, the Pirate Party drew international attention as its support surged.

Like Spain’s Podemos or the movement behind Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential race, it drew in throngs of mostly young supporters fed up with the status quo. Pirate lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir said the results were in line with the party’s own prediction of between 12 and 15 percent — up from the 5 percent it secured in 2013.

“We’re just amazed that we’ll possibly maybe triple our following from last time, and it’s only three years,” Jonsdottir said. The election result looks set to trigger a period of intense political negotiations. It was not immediately clear whether the Independents had the support to assemble a coalition government with other parties of the center and right.

As early results came in overnight, Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson said he was pleased. “These are very positive indicators for us, we are leading in all constituencies, we are gaining new seats in Parliament, so we are very happy,” he said.

Saturday’s election was called after then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned in April during public protests over his offshore holdings, revealed in the Panama Papers leak. The tax-avoidance scandal outraged many Icelanders, who suffered years of economic upheaval after the country’s debt-swollen banks collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis.

The chief victim of voters’ wrath was Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive Party, which lost more than half its seats in the Althingi. New parties made gains among weary voters. A kingmaker in government negotiations could be Vidreisn, or Renewal, a liberal party formed this year that advocates Iceland joining the European Union. It will take about seven parliament seats.

The election was dominated by Iceland’s economy — now recovering on the back of a tourism boom, with low unemployment and high growth — and voters’ desire for political reform. The Pirates campaigned on promises to introduce direct democracy, subject the workings of government to more scrutiny and place the country’s natural resources under public ownership

The party also backs tough rules to protect individuals from online intrusion. Jonsdottir, the Pirates’ most prominent voice, is a former ally of WikiLeaks who has called on Iceland to offer citizenship to U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Opponents argued that the inexperienced Pirates could scare off investors and destabilize the economy. A wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of 320,000, Iceland has become known in recent years for large street protests that ousted one government after the 2008 financial crash and dispatched another in April. It also has strong Scandinavian policies in support of social equality and women’s rights.

But Icelanders — infused with a spirit of Viking self-sufficiency — also have a strong conservative streak that led many to mistrust the Pirates and stick with the status quo. As scores of Pirate supporters from Iceland and around the world watched the election results come in at a Reykjavik brewpub, the boisterous mood was tinged with disappointment.

“I’m really sad and I’m really disappointed in our young generation,” said 22-year-old student Bylgja Gudjonsdottir. “This is our next generation that is taking the country to the next level. But they keep voting for the criminals we have here,” she said.

Iceland votes in snap polls after Panama scandal

29 October 2016 Saturday

Determined to put the Panama Papers scandal and the 2008 bankruptcy behind them, Icelanders will vote on Saturday in a snap election that could see the anti-establishment Pirate Party form a new center-left coalition.

Voters are expected to punish the incumbent government after the Panama Papers revealed a global tax evasion scandal that ensnared several senior politicians and forced former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to resign.

Although the current government of the conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party survived the scandal, it promised a snap election six months before the end of its term in spring 2017.

“We’re loosing support (because of the) big anti-establishment (feeling),” Birgir Armannsson, member of parliament for the Independence Party, told AFP.

The Pirate Party — founded in 2012 by activists, anarchists and former hackers — campaigns for public transparency, institutional reform, individual freedoms, and the fight against corruption.

It draws much of its support from younger voters and spokeswoman Birgitta Jonsdottir says it has also “studied the mistakes of Syriza and Podemos”, leftist parties in Greece and Spain that tapped into anger about austerity cuts imposed during the eurozone debt crisis.

The results will be known shortly after polling stations close but because no party is expected to have a majority Iceland’s fate will only be known after coalition negotiations.

If the Pirate Party does well, it could form the nation’s second center-left government since Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944. The Social Democrats and Greens ruled in a coalition between 2009-2014.

In any negotiations to form a government, the Pirate Party is expected to have leverage over the outgoing Independence Party and the leftist Green movement could for the first time hold the balance of power.

Co-founded by former WikiLeaks spokeswoman Jonsdottir, the Pirate Party has reached a pre-election agreement with three other leftist and centrist opposition parties, including the Left-Greens, the Social Democrats and the Bright Future Movement, to form a coalition government.

Together, they could have more than 50 percent of the votes, according to the latest polls, which also show a high proportion of undecided voters.

“We think that these parties can cooperate very well, they have many common issues. I think it will be a very feasible governmental choice,” Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Left-Green movement told AFP.

Anger at 2008 collapse

Although Iceland, a volcanic island with a population of 332,000 people, has returned to prosperity since its 2008 financial meltdown with GDP growth expected to be above four percent this year due to tourism and the recovery of its financial system, the nation’s youth distrusts the political elite.

The crisis saw Iceland’s three biggest banks and its over-sized financial sector collapse.

The nation was plunged into a devastating economic crisis and forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

A string of bankers were jailed, the failed banks were temporarily nationalized and then sold and foreign investors had to accept write-downs on their debt holdings.

Olafur Hardarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, attributed the Pirates’ rise in popularity to voters’ anger at the 2008 collapse.

“They have managed to focus on the anti-politics and anti-establishment feelings of a lot of voters that have been frustrated in Iceland since the bank crash,” Hardarson told AFP.

Voter Einar Hannesson, a 42-year-old laborer, said he would be voting for the Pirates because they offered change.

“I want change. I don’t like everything that the Pirates are proposing, but if we want change, it’s the best party,” he said.

Source: World Bulletin.


Iceland celebrates biggest victory with win over England

June 28, 2016

NICE, France (AP) — Aron Gunnarsson, every inch the bearded Viking, ran shirtless toward the Iceland fans and led them in their victory chants. Beating England at the European Championship was more than just Iceland’s greatest sporting success. Monday was a moment of national triumph in a country where the team’s improbable progress from the group stage had already outshone coverage of Saturday’s presidential election.

The Scandinavian nation of just 330,000 people, by the far the smallest country to qualify for a European Championship, inflicted a shattering 2-1 defeating on England – the country that has been the model for Icelandic football for decades.

Defender Ragnar Sigurdsson, who scored Iceland’s first goal and made an outstanding last-ditch tackle to deny Jamie Vardy a potential equalizer, said he had “dreamt … a long time ago” of playing England.

But he sounded a little disappointed with what he’d found. “We didn’t feel that they created any chances,” he said. “(Harry) Kane had a header opportunity and headed straight to the goalkeeper, there’s a lot that we were just heading away and long shots from distance.”

It was a victory built on smart positioning in defense, English-style physical play and many, many individual errors from England’s players. Iceland’s rock-solid 4-4-2 formation was a ghost from the past of England coach Roy Hodgson, who along with Bob Houghton introduced it to Sweden when they coached there in the 1970s and 1980s. One of their disciples was Lars Lagerback, now Iceland’s co-coach.

“I learned a lot from them, they changed the training methods and the coaching education in the long run in Sweden and I was really, really benefiting from that,” Lagerback said, minutes after Hodgson resigned from the England job. “Respect to a really, really good coach.”

Lagerback took Hodgson’s gifts and turned them against his old master with devastating effect. In seven games against England with Sweden and now Iceland, Lagerback’s teams have never been defeated. In Nice on Monday, Iceland neutralized the English Premier League’s top two scorers, Kane and Vardy, with tight marking, positional forethought and superb awareness of where the rest of the team was at all times.

England’s left winger Raheem Sterling won the penalty that gave England the lead early on. But he was then kept quiet by right-back Birkir Saevarsson. On the right, Daniel Sturridge had a little more success but found few targets for his often-wayward crosses.

Iceland’s gameplan was built around shutting down England’s stars, but it wasn’t all negative. On the break, the Icelanders created the best chances of the game and could have scored another when Gunnarsson turned Jack Wilshere but saw his shot saved by Joe Hart.

All through the game, the vastly outnumbered contingent of Icelanders sang more than England’s supporters, who were left in stunned silence for long periods. As England’s players slumped onto the grass and the final whistle, Iceland’s substitutes and backroom staff charged onto the pitch as if they’d won the final.

“We are a little bit colored by our love for the English football, so probably this game means a little bit more to us, who have been watching English football since we were born,” Lagerback’s co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson said.

As for playing host nation France in a quarterfinal on Sunday, Hallgrimsson added: “I will take it.” Fresh from beating England, tiny Iceland now feels it can take on the world. “We didn’t have so much problems defending (against) the English, and also in ball possession we created a lot of good chances,” Hallgrimsson said. “If the players play with the same attitude, we can beat anyone.”

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