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4.21.2010

The Curious Case of Volcanic Ash and why nobody is doing anything about it

Now we've all learned something airlines have known for a long time: that volcanic ash is catastrophic, it sandblasts planes and shuts down jet engines. And you can't see it in the sky. That's the incredible thing. Looking up, the sky remains blue - with pretty white wisps of what seems innocuous vapour but could be deadly ash.

And so it was when, on a fine spring day, huge ash clouds billowed out of an Icelandic volcano whose name is unpronounceable and impossible to remember and were blown across Europe. We all read about the havoc caused in air traffic all over Europe and beyond, and I won't go over it here. To keep you updated on air traffic is the job of the media.

All I want to do here is make some comments about this - the Curious Case of Volcanic Ash.

First, the consequences of a stop in air travel like this one - 5 or 6 days so far, and who knows for how  long - were far worse than expected. It didn't merely ground some passengers. It grounded an incredible number of them: over 50,000 Americans were stranded in Europe and four times as many British citizens spread out around the globe couldn't get home. Similarly dismal statistics apply to the citizens of a dozen other countries.

Then there were the surprising - but if you stop to think about it - perfectly natural disruptions in European markets for tropical fruit and out-of-season vegetables. Europeans, with a rising standard of living, have started to behave just like Americans: they want asparagus, green beans, grapes and strawberries all year round - which means flying them in from Latin America and Africa where they are produced.   Kenya alone is losing an estimated US$ 2 million a day. And that means hardship for everyone in developing countries, including the rural poor who provide the manual labour to pick the produce and pack it.

However, politically, fruit and vegetable producers and distributors don't constitute a very strong lobby. Neither do passengers. The heavy weights who really got annoyed on the fifth day of stoppage imposed by Eurocontrol were (predictably) the airlines. Lufthansa sent up test flights, and I gather so did British Airways, with their planes coming back unscathed. Such tests didn't convince the authorities: after all, nobody knows where those clouds are. They can easily be confused with normal vapour. The test planes could have simply by-passed them.

Because that's another incredible fact that came out in this crisis: the shutdown of European air space was decreed not on the basis of scientific, verifiable facts, but on computer models. In other words: theoretical probabilities not hard facts. It's amazing how our Society is committed to mathematics and statistics rather than direct observation. The theory said there were risks - how risky nobody really knew - but there were some risks and so the decision was taken.

Nobody felt like taking any risks.

The "principle of precaution" is sancro-sanct in Europe. No politician nor any government or inter-governmental institution such as Eurocontrol would have dared to contravene the principle. Indeed, it is the same principle that has led to the overproduction of swine flu vaccine last winter. And the same principle that stops most European countries from allowing in genetically-modified cereals, vegetables or meat.

The precaution principle is Big Stuff - a real tyrant.

So should we ditch it? Of course not. One should not - not ever - put any life in danger, no matter how small the risk. It's not just a question of being politically correct, but morally correct.

Great. Are you impressed? I am not. I can't help but notice that when a stop in air traffic causes losses reportedly amounting to some 200 million Euros a day, the situation tends to change. Imperceptibly - but it does change. Airports across Europe were progressively re-opened.

Why? Remember, the airline lobby is powerful. They've even got national parliaments discussing the possibility of helping them with "emergency funding", claiming that this crisis is worse than what happened after 9/11 and American air space was closed...

Ok, that's a lot of political blah-blah but the threat of volcanic ash remains. There are over one hundred active volcanoes on this planet. Fortunately most do not threaten European air space, one of the most trafficked in the world.
But watching the gradual re-opening of air traffic, another disturbing fact emerged. European air space did not open smoothly, no, it hesitated, sputtered, and took time. Too much time. Because it's not easy, when there is no such thing as a Single European Sky and over two dozen countries are involved. Obviously a lot of consultation is required: it is much easier to close down the skies than re-open them. The EU Commission has been grumbling that's because no one has paid any attention to its Single European Sky proposal (made back in 2004). The Commission is probably right. Indeed, no one has paid any attention. Every country wants to hold on to every bit of national sovereignty it can, especially if it's up in the sky.

I bet that soon the whole crisis will be forgotten and the Single European Sky proposal will once more fall into oblivion. Until the next crisis...

But do we really have to live in this way, with an institutional mess and a lack of scientific data? Perhaps not. I came across an interesting story in the Italian press (the Stampa of 21 April). A few years ago, when Etna, Sicily's monster volcano and the biggest in Europe, spewed ashes for a whole month, the airport of Catania, Fontanarossa, had to be closed. That's not such a small airport (it averages 6 million passengers a year) but the problem passed largely unnoticed. Why? Sicilians themselves used the Palermo airport, two hours away from Catania, and most of the ashes was blown south, over Africa where there are practically no airports. Of course, if Etna wakes up again (as it is bound to), and blows its ashes up north, then another Icelandic-like disaster would hit Europe.

The Italians are well aware of this, and their "Protezione Civile", a government outfit tasked with disaster prevention and management, set up four months ago in Catania airport a special radar. It is reportedly a modified version of those used for meterological purposes and it is designed to monitor volcanic ashes in the atmosphere. I am no scientist, but I can easily imagine how the system would work. With the help of the radar, the idea is simple enough: identify ash-free corridors in the sky above the airport, allowing planes to land and take-off safely. In other words: direct observation as opposed to theory and computer models. It would mean monitoring volcanic ashes in real time - something that cannot be done now.

So why isn't the system in use everywhere in Europe? Because, according to the Protezione Civile, the radar in Catania is still experimental. It has to be tested and Etna, a notoriously fickle volcano, is not collaborating. For the moment it is fast asleep and not spewing any ash at all.

Do we really have to wait for Etna to wake up and send ashes all over Europe so we can test the system? Wouldn't it be better to set up this experimental radar somewhere in Northern Europe and test is out as soon as possible on the Icelandic ash clouds?

Where is European cooperation on this most important matter?

What do you think? Do join me in asking that something be done without wasting time any further!

4.17.2010

Finances of Mass Destruction: is the End in Sight?

At first glance, it would seem speculators are having a field day. Their Glory Age started two years ago. After betting against the American real estate market and successfully shooting mortgages down in flames, sovereign debt is now under attack. First in Dubai, next in Greece, then Portugal, Spain and why not Italy? When it happened in Dubai, we all felt rather removed from it (after all, it was the Middle East and in any case the Arabs are flooded in ill-earned petro-dollars, right?). Now that the problem has reached the shores of Europe, it's a little too close to home for comfort.

Well, what are the speculators really up to this time?

It would appear that the national rate of savings (rather than ratios like debt to GDP) is the key indicator speculators look at. The reasoning is very simple. If a country saves too little, it means it can't keep up with payments on its national debt - because the only way to pay back creditors is through taxation. And when a country is poor and getting poorer because of the Great Recession, there's little income to tax. It's a downward spiral. Hence the attack on so-called "sovereign debt".

That's the latest and most worrying effect of the Great Recession. If you read the newspapers, as usual the news are dire and dismal. One wonders why Greece and Portugal would ever want to stay in the Euro. Pundits predict that the austerity measures imposed on them by Brussels and its Euro partners (and among them Germany is unpleasantly vocal) are likely to prolong the recession. Countries caught in this particular trap are going to find it nearly impossible to climb out and get back into a healthy growth cycle.

Are speculators going to enjoy full impunity as they shoot down one country after another? It certainly looks like the odds are on their side. They have never had to pay for their misdeeds - indeed, the big bank bailouts using taxpayers' money look dangerously close to a sophisticated form of insurance against failure, opening the way to yet more misdeeds in future. After successfully wreaking havoc in international private finance,  it would appear that it is the turn of public finance.

Now is that really true? Is there no hope, nothing that is going to shield us from the financial sharks?

First, their reasoning may be wrong and in the end, turn against them. Take those attacks on the Greek sovereign debt (and, eventually, other European countries with low savings rates). Ok, a first result is the weakening of the Euro. But, remember, that's just what Germany wants to help its exporters -  it is a country whose growth depends on exports far more than any other in the Euro area. So renewed attacks on Greece are going to play in the hands of the Germans, insofar as it weakens the Euro. But we're in a dynamic situation. A weaker Euro also helps exporters throughout the Euro area, Greece and Portugal included. So, after all and in spite of what is said in the media, there's a silver lining in the cloud hanging over Europe: if the Euro goes down, up go exports across the board...

Second, the days of gleeful impunity for speculators may actually be reaching an end. Yesterday, 16 April 2010 - a date we should put a red circle around on our calendar- the SEC announced it was going to pursue Goldman Sachs for fraud. It charged that investors were duped into losing $US1 billion on a rigged deal pegged to dubious home loans. There's actually a great deal of public sympathy for this kind of move. The term Warren Buffett coined for derivatives was instantly a popular success. He famously described them as "financial weapons of mass destruction". Likewise, Michel Barnier, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, is also considering tough regulations and has been repeatedly threatening to impose rules on hedge funds and curbs on bankers' pay. In Europe - probably unlike America - people are becoming increasingly irritated with the capitalist market ideology which is viewed as nothing more than an amoral money jungle.

Let's hope that the road to greater regulation of the financial world is not stopped by the likes of Sarah Palin and her irresponsible Tea Party cronies...We can't let bankers turn their banks into gambling houses. They're supposed to support economic growth, ensuring that savings are turned into constructive investments. Savings are not something to play roulette with, betting against the real estate market and sovereign debt.

In all this, what really worries me is the obvious collapse of morality across our modern society. In the rush to make money - ever more money $$$ - bankers seem to have forgotten what their banking role was all about. Artists seem to have forgotten what Art was all about. I hope that doctors still remember what medecine is about and that engineers still know how to build bridges that hold up...

4.07.2010

Contemporary Art: from Duchamp's urinal to Manzoni's sh*t in the box to... what next?

Almost a century ago (in 1917), Marcel Duchamp made Art History with his urinal, of which there are five copies today in the most important museums around the world (the original is lost).

Almost fifty years ago (in 1961), Piero Manzoni put shit in a box and pretended to be paid its weight in gold (he was - and got even more...)

Almost fifteen years ago (in 1996), Chris Ofili, a YBA painter of Nigerian descent, "painted" a black Virgin Mary with an exposed breast made of elephant dung.  People were shocked when it was shown in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, and some said (for example Jerry Saltz, the art critic of the Village Voice) that it was because people were used to seeing white virgins. That overlooks the fact there were some famous black virgins in the Middle Ages. No, what was shocking was the dung - and the collage of genitals around her face - not the colour.

A couple of days ago, I received an email message from a supposed art critic who presented the work of two Czech video artists whose name I've forgotten (and I won't look it up for you, their names don't matter). And what work! These two guys (who call themselves "performance artists") had pulled down their pants, crouched and defecated on the gallery floor in tandem. Must take some training to do that in tandem. Of course there's more to their work, like pornographic videos of other minor sins such as (literally) licking an art curator's ass. The message in all this? Presumably that the art establishment stinks and should be sh*t upon.Get it? This is deep stuff. We are dealing here with conceptual art - Duchamp's brainchild - and therefore we are asked to reflect. This is not for the distracted or the faint of heart.

No matter. The point is that we've come from a urinal to a  mound of filthy, stinking sh*t - a mound that is growing and who knows where it will stop. Because every contemporary artist worth his salt has to outdo the others. What next, an Everest of sh*t? And they call this Art, with a capital A.

Are you shocked?

I am not. I am well passed being shocked. I am simply bored. This is not art. This is nothing.

You know what the real problem with conceptual art is? That it's a CONCEPT! And concepts originate in the rational mind. A concept is an analytical piece of reasoning. One looks at something out there in the world - could be anything, say medical pills or butterfly wings. Then the "artist" mulls over it and spews out an opinion about it. Whatever is spewed out is considered art because the spewer says so. The medical pills don't need to be sculpted in marble nor the butterfly wings painted. Ask Damien Hirst - he's a master at this sort of thing. He uses the real world objects - the pills, the butterfies -  and has a bunch of assistants put it all together for him in pre-ordained installations, arrangements, collages, whatever. No need for him to either paint or sculpt. Brilliant.

The trouble is that it works as a concept, but not as art.

Art is about emotions, not concepts. To appreciate art takes time. One has to finetune one's emotions. This can only be achieved through education. The more you learn about art, the more you broaden your capacity to appreciate it. You have to spend hours in museums looking at the masterpieces of the past to understand what painting is all about. To be able to distinguish the good from the bad, the original from the banal. If you don't invest in yourself, you'll never build up the necessary knowledge - and I don't mean to achieve the status of an art connoisseur but simply to enjoy art to its fullest possible measure.

Culture must be nurtured - or else there is none.

Do you think the new rich who buy all those preposterous things from contemporary artists that pass for works of art have ever had the time to build up their knowledge? Of course not, they were busy making money - they had no time to learn anything about art and culture!

Do you think that now that they've made money, they care about art?  Of course not, for them art is an investment, full stop. They look at prices in art auctions. So they go straight to the priciest lots. A safe bet. The more they vie for the same lots, the higher the prices. And the higher the value of what they have already collected.

The art world is a little like real estate where, as everyone knows, there are three rules to make a good investment: location, location and location. To invest in art, there are also three rules: price, price, and price. That may cause a bubble someday (like in real estate) but that's another story. In any case, judging from what happened in the real estate segment for the ultra rich during our current Great Recession, a price inflection is not likely to be long-lasting - provided the art investment is restricted to the two or three dozen artists whose works are already in the collections of the very rich and who are managed by top art merchants such as Saachi or Gagosian and sustained by major museum art curators.  In France, another player should be added: the Ministry of Culture, but, as always, this public interference is part of the "French exception". It doesn't change anything to the fact that the game is played between a few billionaire players and that it has nothing to do with art.

Is there a way out? Will Art (the real variety) ever make a comeback?

Difficult to say. What is missing in our affluent society is a GUIDE. A model to emulate. We have become a society without culture. This is a point very ably made by  Jean-Louis Harouel, a respected French sociologist and professor at the University of Paris II  in his latest book, La Grande Falsification (ed.Jean-Cyrille Godefroy 2009) - a must read. I highly recommend it.  He is also the author of Culture et Contre-cultures, PUF, 3rd ed. 2002, another fascinating book.

As he points out, in the past, when people made money like the Paris brothers who were the offspring of an innkeeper at the time of Louis XV, there was a model to follow:  the aristocracy living off rents. Not having to work, aristocrats had all the time on hand to cultivate their "art de vivre" and their taste for Art. So the Paris brothers when they decided to invest in Art  had no hesitation: they knew what to do and bought Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher for their collection. Nowadays, where is the model? The aristocracy is gone for the most part, and, as Harouel put it, if there is any Duke's son remaining, he is busy making money like everybody else.

In short, a leisure elite that can cultivate its free time to develop an understanding of art and a real support for it, is gone. Completely gone. So what can the new rich buy? The new rich in Russia, China, India or elsewhere come to the world of art with what culture? Indeed, throughout the 20th century, with what culture did the American new rich come with, the likes of Peggy Guggenheim and Nelson Rockefeller?

Who was and is the model?

The answer: Duchamp and his followers.

In America, during the Cold War (in the 1940s and 50s), there was a patriotic movement which imposed Rothko, Pollock and abstract expressionists over the likes of figurative artists such as Hopper (later followed by Pop Art). All this "modern" art, defined as "the art of democracy", was meant as a reaction against Communism and Social Realism in art. Abstract expressionism is "the painting of free enterprise", as Alfred Barr, the great art expert of MoMA, wrote in 1949 in a letter to Henry Luce, the Time-Life boss (and apparently convincing him to move away from his love of the Old Masters - taking his papers along with him). But of course who could ever support Social realism in Art? It is obviously another ghastly distortion of Art, forcing the artist into a figurative art at the service of communist propaganda.

Bottomline, any type of political propaganda is guaranteed to hurt artistic inspiration and ensure bad art. If you don't believe it, just look at the statue the President of Senegal unveiled in April 2010 in the ceremonies to celebrate the 50 years of independance of his country. He thought it was a hymn to "African Renaissance". It cost something like €27 million - a sum that would have been much more useful to modernize Dakar or help the rural poor. It is a 53 meter high monster scultpure of a victorious young man with family, looking up at the sky - the worst possible art, the likes of which we hadn't seen since Soviet days...

I guess what I'm saying is this: what really hurts Art is its politicization and monetizing...

Are we ever going to be able to reclaim Art for artists and for the lovers of Art? What do you think?

4.05.2010

Will you please leave the Pope alone?

I can't believe what's going on in the media!
Ok, pedophiles are awful, despicable people and they hurt children and cause untold suffering that lasts a lifetime. Ok, pedophiles'preferred playground are schools.

But surely they cannot be all concentrated in CATHOLIC schools? I don't believe it. There are pedophiles everywhere, in every country, in every kind of school of whatever religious denomination. It's a very, very serious problem but the whole thing's made worse by the unthinking attention of the media. They love bad news because bad news SELL (whoever heard of good news that sell copy? As everybody knows, good news are no news).

Result? It started with bishops in Ireland that tried to cover up the crimes of subordinates. Or so goes the story. Then, we all know what happened. The story was repeated in France, in the Netherlands, in the US, and of course, worse of all, in Germany, the Pope's native country. One didn't have to wait long to see the dirt lap up to the very skirts of the Holy Father. Every week, goaded by the news in the media, new cases of pedophilia have popped up - seemingly a never-ending wave. But I wonder how many of these new cases are for real... People love to get attention, they love to jump on the bandwagon. And with all the hullaballoo, everybody is losing sight of the FACTS.

What are the facts? First that the Pope had nothing to do with these heinous crimes. NOTHING AT ALL. On the contrary, he is the one who started to tighten the screws back in the late 90s when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Indeed, he was the first high prelate in the Catholic Church - and possibly in any other church as well - who started to seriously worry about the situation, launching investigations and setting up a procedure to punish the culprits. Before him, no one had. And I think that's important, and interestingly it is something the media glosses over or feigns to ignore. Because, of course, that would be good news about the Catholic Church hierarchy, wouldn't it? So, anything about the real role of the Pope in this dismal affair has to be passed over.

Mum is the word.

And if you don't believe me, just read the Pope's Open Letter to the Irish. He's very clear about where he stands and what should be done. What other head of what other church is as clear as he is? And to think that some people have the gall to ask whether the Pope can be destituted!

It is a pity we have to be subjected to so much nonsense. The atmosphere is so filled with venom that it is difficult to debate anything with the required peace of mind. Yet there might be reason to discuss some serious matters, such as the celibacy requirement for catholic priests. Celibacy for priests is not a dogma. It is even possible that St Peter was married since Jesus Christ is supposed to have cured his mother in law - ergo he must have been married. Yes, the founder of the Catholic Church was probably married! Isn't that an interesting thought?  And priests in the Catholic Church of Ukraine are allowed to be married (of course, not all of them are) - and the Vatican allows them to be married. So, with due care, a change might well be possible. After all the Catholic Church has changed many times over the centuries. One example will suffice for all: the Church supported slavery up to the Middle Ages - of course, it no longer does so.

Now, I for one believe that a married man might find it easier to connect with his community than a celibate one. As a husband and father, a priest might respond and empathize faster and more completely with the faithful in his church. I wrote "might", because it is not absolutely certain. The capacity for empathy is highly variable from one individual to the next and a very human celibate priest might be far better than, say, an introverted married one. Indeed, marriage is not necessarily bliss and can bring problems. Still, one may presume that a man who has children of his own is less likely to engage in pedophiliac activities (if that's the right word...)

So my view is that  marriage for a priest should be an option. Of course, once the priest has chosen the road of marriage, he should not deviate from it. He should set the example. No divorce for him!

What are your views? 

3.30.2010

March 2010: a pivotal month? Or more of the same...

Since I last wrote a month ago, so much has happened in the world...Or is it just more of the same?

Against all odds, Obama got his health reform through. He wrote History. Or did he? Wasn't it more a matter of catching up with History?

What was surprising to European observers (like myself) was the amount of acrimony this issue has generated in America. From a European point of view, it is almost impossible to comprehend that anyone would use arguments like the Republicans did - claiming it would bring Socialism to America, cause a budgetary disaster and costs to shoot up etc and even go so far as to depict Obama in the vest of a new Hitler.

Amazing!

I repeat, from a European point of view, health coverage for some 31 million Americans appeared overdue. Surely, it is a simple matter of ethics. How can the greatest democracy in the world illtreat its citizens in this way? How can a free market ideology that clearly ostracizes millions of people and throws them in poverty be put ahead of the most elementary sense of  equity and even, yes, why not use the term, charity? It simply looks immoral!  And I believe it is. Sure, national health coverage is expensive. Sure, it can easily degenerate into corruption and mismanagement. And it requires close monitoring and control to avoid the most obvious problems. We are well aware of this in Europe, and struggling to address these issues (not always successfully - but that's another story). But, as a matter of principle, national health coverage cannot be put in question. It is a MUST!

The Middle East is the other burning question that has undergone some changes this month - all of them for the worse. True, the Talibans are being chased all over the place in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Obama even made a surprise visit to Karzai on 28 March, but the situation still looks dire and not about to be solved soon. Iran is expanding its nuclear activities and Israel its building activities in Jerusalem which makes a joke out of the American-sponsored "proximity talks" to solve the Palestinian problem.

No, the problems in the Middle East are not about to be solved soon, particularly with the Europeans not too interested in helping the Americans. They have problems of their own and are not looking at anything beyond their own borders. The British are cranking up for their election campaign and (maybe) a change from Labour into (an as yet unclear) Tory government. Continental Europeans are worked up over the Euro's soft underbelly, exposed by irresponsible Greek budget deficits.

There was much gleeful talk about the PIGS or PIIGS, depending whether you included Italy or not in the basic list of culprits constituted by Portugal, Ireland, Greece of course, and Spain. The Germans have come out with some very rude remarks about Mediterranean profligacy in general and the Greek in particular. They called for intervention from the International Monetary Fund  because they were damned if they were going to help out people that had never learned to tighten their belts and do an honest day's work. The French resisted the call, retorting that the IMF was in the hands of the Americans (and from Sarkozy's point of view, in the hands of Strauss-Kahn, a future rival in the next presidential round). Others joined in to argue that it would amount to unwanted  interference in the management of a sovereign currency. Imagine the situation in reverse: it would be like calling on the IMF to save the dollar because California has gone bankrupt. Finally, our politicians reached (as usual) a compromise: if needed, Greece would be saved by a combination of bilateral loans and IMF intervention.

Yeah, if needed.Whatever that means.

One thing is certain: this is a very lame duck management of a sovereign currency. And, not surprisingly, international investors have not been kind with the Greek Government when it sought yet another loan yesterday. It had to pay a hefty interest (6%) and the loan was oversubscribed by a meagre 25 percent, compared with the 300 percent achieved for the previous Greek loan.  It is clear that without serious European coordination there is no Euro.

We're a long way from a real Euro and from a real Europe.Conclusion? On the international scene, there is, as usual, a European void. A desert.

Good luck Ms. Ashton!
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