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11.01.2010

HOW MANY LIVES CAN A MAN LIVE?

Metal Hammer Golden Gods June 2010 15 Christop...

Cats are said to live seven lives. What about a man, or a woman for that matter?

On a recent evening, I was watching a fascinating biopic on ARTE TV. It was about Christopher Lee's life and that question popped in my mind. Christopher Lee is a man who has known amazing ups and downs in his long life. Born in Belgravia, London, he started off well with a silver spoon in his mouth, attending  one of the best public schools in England, the kind that leads you to Oxford and Cambridge, and a career in banking or diplomacy. Then things collapsed: his parents divorced, and as a young man,  he found himself struggling to earn a living before finishing his education. He suffered as an office boy until World War II. After honourably serving in Africa, he came back to London, still desperate for a job. The turning point was a meeting in 1946 (or 47) with his uncle Carandini, the Italian Ambassador to Britain, who suggested he might become an actor. An extraordinary suggestion if you consider that it was made by a conservative diplomat. And Christopher Lee's mother (a Carandini herself) disapproved, of course. However that is what he did, meeting with increasing success in colourful Dracula roles and other horror movies, including bizarre ones made in Italy, mixing Hercules with vampires.

Then things started to take a turn for the worse. He found himself stuck with his horror movie image and adversely affected by a slowdown in the horror movie market. Horror movies in the 50s and '60s were always considered a B series kind of market, while Christopher Lee had ambition. He knew he was a better actor than that. But the dreadful lull in his career  was a long, long one. Anyone else might have lost hope, but not him. Remarkable.

Help came from the most unexpected quarter: from Muhammad Ali the boxer whom he befriended. After winning a major fight, Muhammad Ali mentioned Lee's name as one of his friends who had followed him on TV and Hollywood started to make offers. He hosted the Saturday Night Show in New York and that was followed by some 35 million Americans at the time: a record audience! He came off, not as a horror movie actor, but as a man who could tell jokes and brilliantly entertain with his dry wit. He got to play in a James Bond movie as Scaramanga,  the suave, sexy villain in "the Man with the Golden Gun". After that high point, we find him  fifteen years later climbing yet other high points starring in several Star Wars episodes and as the fabulous wizard, Saruman the White, in two of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So he has moved from horror to fantasy and science fiction to hosting a major TV show. Without ever giving up on his original genre, the horror film. He has always felt that the "Wicker Man" in which he played a major role (a film with a difficult distribution history) was outstanding and so it is - and now he is vindicated: see the Guardian article listed below which claims the film has not only renewed the hackneyed horror genre but thrillers in general.

Quite an interesting "career arc": hardly an arc, more like a zig zag! And to crown it all, he has recently agreed to sing with the Heavy Metals. He has a formidable voice and presence, he looks like a Medieval King, Christopher-The Lion-Hearted! He's just released an album, check it out here! 

How old is our Heavy Metal singer? Born in May 1922, he is getting on...88 years old. Incredible!

So how many lives can a man have? It would seem that in our times, given the general zeitgeist, the incredible opportunities of our market economy and the lengthening of average life with advances in medicine, a man can have more than one...perhaps as many as three or four.

If you can handle it!

Take a look at Christopher Lee. I think the lesson is clear: what you need is willpower, grit, what the Italians call "grinta". I love the word, the way it sounds: grrrrinta! Don't ever give up on your dreams!
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10.29.2010

ABOUT ART: The Best...My Own!

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...
Yes, sorry about that...I usually don't talk here about what I do, but this time I'm going to make an exception. Because I NEED YOU! Yes, I NEED YOUR VOTE for a portfolio of paintings I have submitted to a competition organized by a couple of (very active) painters, calling on artists to submit their work for the SCOPE space in the Miami Art Fair.

Please click this link and VOTE. And if you like it, please share with friends and get them to vote as well! With my heartfelt thanks!

 arttakesmiami.com/claude


Are you surprised? Well...You may have noticed my horse paintings that gracefully (hummm!) adorn both my blogs (this one and the one with my "It's cooking!" blog with recipes for the foodies among you - to see it, click on the link in the up right corner...) If you have noticed them, you'll know that I also paint...I've been painting since childhood and I learned the techniques of drawing and oil painting from my mother who was herself taught by Delvaux (among others). You know who Delvaux is, I'm sure: he's got a whole wing of the Beaux Arts National Museum in Brussels dedicated to him and he is, of course, Magritte's eternal rival. I'm not sure Magritte is better than Delvaux - I like Delvaux' s palette, although his sad-eyed women - always the same woman with the same expression - do annoy me somewhat. On a personal level, the most important thing I've learned from all of them (my mother included) is the art of drawing...as to the colours, they are my own and so are the themes!

Speaking of themes, you'll be surprised that what I present in this portfolio has nothing to do with horses. The theme here is based on the many years I spent  painting  the Third World where I have travelled for over 20 years in over 50 countries, inspecting and evaluating aid projects executed by FAO, a United Nations specialized agency (it's mandate is "food and agriculture",  i.e. giving people the agricultural tools to fight hunger).

My portfolio starts off with the Haiti disaster - a refugee family waiting for aid, forlornly hanging on to barbed wire (and it's real wire I've tacked on the painting, cutting myself in the process!).

The portfolio goes on next to one of the more emblematic pictures of the 2004 Tsunami disaster. You may remember it ...but not like this! I've added several bits to it (for example, the corpse of a Western tourist brought back from the beach in the left corner; a flooded house in the right corner) and of course,  I have deliberately modified the central piece: the wailing woman kneeling on the beach is cancelled  with a big cross - the sort of mark photographers put on their pictures when they want something deleted - . Why? Because there are definite aspects of that particular disaster that we in the West would rather put out of our mind. In this case,  the Indian widow who's crying on the beach where she's found the corpse of her husband.

Ok, we were all moved by her pain but she is in fact less important than the Western tourists that got caught by the Big Wave and died. So I crossed her out to reflect visually the lower level of priority attached to "natives" affected by disasters when compared to ourselves...Speaking of the "arbitrariness of the sign" which, as you all know, is precisely what Magritte's famous "ceci n'est pas une pipe" painting is supposed to be all about (illustration above)
.
Think about it. Have you ever wondered why the 2004 Tsunami disaster brought more aid money THAN ANY OTHER DISASTER IN HISTORY? Because Western tourists were caught in it not by the dozen (as usually happens) but by the HUNDREDS!
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10.26.2010

The Great Hacker Heist, another short story inspired by recent news...

Chalet Whirpool
The Great Hacker Heist  
A short story by Claude Nougat
“When I woke up, everything in the house was stolen!” The woman sobbed. “Everything!” she wailed. The lines around her mouth and on her forehead were so deep that her face looked like a Greek mask of grief. The husband didn’t seem to share in her pain. He just kept patting her hand, like a father might do to calm an excitable daughter, and murmuring “my poor darling…”
The policeman squared his shoulders and settled his beer belly in the armchair, reflecting that he was facing a bizarre trio: a hysterical middle-aged wife, a much older, apparently unruffled husband, and a third rather enigmatic person, a young lawyer with close cropped hair and a know-it-all smile. So far the lawyer hadn’t said a word, beyond introducing himself and his clients.
 “Ma’am, I need to understand what happened…” said the policeman, his hand raised towards the computer’s touch screen. The morning sunshine hit his eyes, and he got up to pull the curtains.
The woman complied, without waiting for the policeman to return to his computer. “They took everything!” she said, her tinny voice rising to a crescendo. “My paintings, my carpets, my new white leather sofa. A beautiful sofa, top of the line, it cost me a bomb! And the newly installed aquarium. I hadn’t even had time to buy fish for it. And the billiards table that doubles as a dining table when covered up. All gone in one night.  I tell you, they took everything!”
“You mean the whole house was empty?” said the policeman, sitting down. He tapped the screen of  the computer and with a graceful wave of the hand, he called up the standard form for depositions.
The woman nodded, wiping her tears. “Empty. All seven rooms of the house: totally empty. They didn’t leave one piece of furniture behind. Just the dog. My poor Muffy. He was there, all alone, walking around in the empty rooms. He was moaning, his eyes drooped, his ears too, he looked so sad…” And she started crying again.
            The policeman sighed. He hated it when women cried like this. It made it so difficult to take their deposition down. “Was the dog hurt?” he asked.
“No…no, I don’t think so.”
“And he didn’t bark in the night?”
“No. He never barks at strangers.”
“Why not?”
“I’ve trained him not to!” said the woman with pride.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have,” grumbled the policeman. People were really stupid. If it didn’t bark, why did they keep a dog for? “Look, Lady, let’s start from the beginning,” he said. “Let’s go at it, one step at a time. Let me ask you. When, to the best of you knowledge, did this theft happen?”
“Last night.”
“Ok, last night, that means Thursday October 12, 2020." He tapped the date on the screen. "But let’s try to pinpoint the time. When did you go to bed?”
“I didn’t look but I usually go late, after my husband. At what time did you go to bed, darling?” she asked, turning to her husband.
“Oh, I was tired and I went around ten, as usual,” he said. The policeman wondered why he looked so grim.  “But darling, you never come up with me,” he added, looking yet more sombre, almost accusing. “You always stay all evening in front of your computer!”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yes, you do. You must have come up around midnight,” he replied. “That’s what you usually do. But I didn’t hear you. Who knows. You might have come in even later than that.”
“Yes, Officer,  he’s right, my husband’s right. I have to admit it: I’m a computer addict!” she said, with a winning smile, perhaps designed to assuage her husband’s bad mood. “I…I don’t know at what time I went to bed.”
“Right. Okay. Let’s put in 12 pm,” said the policeman, entering the time with a tap on the screen. “Did you notice anything strange, out of the ordinary?”
“Nothing.” Her bright blue eyes looked straight at the policeman and he was certain she was telling the truth. Then he noticed yet another tear pearling in the corner of her eye and he hurried on with his questions. “Did you hear anything, any strange noises? Anything woke you up?” he asked.
She shook her head and brought out some paper tissue to dab at her eyes.
“You mean they carried out all that damn furniture out and you heard nothing?” he said, perplexed. Amazing how soundly people manage to sleep. His own sleep was very light – at his age, he was near retirement, he had this problem with peeing. Nobody could ever have emptied his house during the night without him noticing it.
She shook her head again and dabbed at her eyes some more. With all that dabbing, her eyes were becoming very red.
“I can’t believe it! A billiards table and a sofa, these are big, heavy things!”
“ I know,” she sighed. “And they even took my new Jacuzzi whirlpool! And the bathroom mirrors! I spent more on that bathroom than on anything else in the house!”
“They walked off with a Jacuzzi? You don’t say!” The policeman stared at her, and at the husband and their accompanying lawyer. This really was most unusual. Fun even. He’d heard of a lot of house robberies in his time, but never one which involved  unscrewing and unplugging a Jacuzzi. What with all the pipes and the electricity to cut off and the tub to carry through the door. And a whirlpool Jacuzzi had to be a damn big tub. Phenomenal. “I’ve never heard of such a heist. These were true professionals!” he exclaimed, and a hint of admiration could be detected in his voice. “How could you have heard nothing at all?”
            She shook her head once more but all of a sudden she looked guilty. Ah, thought the policeman, here we come. Here’s the explanation.
 “I did make a mistake”, she said. “I left my computer on.”
“Your computer was on?” The policeman looked at her aghast. What did that have to do with anything? Yet both her husband and the lawyer were shaking their heads knowingly. As if the computer was the thing that explained it all. That was weird.
“Yes,” she said. “It was on. I forgot to turn it off. I never forget, but last night I forgot. My fault.”
“Ma’am, I wouldn’t worry so much about it. I sometimes forget to turn off this office computer at night, and it’s still running in the morning when I come back. And nothing’s happened.”
“Lucky you!” she said, and started to cry some more.
“But Ma’am, there’s something I don’t understand. If they took everything away, how come they didn’t take your computer?”
“Of course they didn’t. That would have been impossible.”
“Impossible? What do you mean?” roared the policeman. These guys were pulling his leg and he had enough of it.
“Officer, please, let me explain,” said the lawyer. He had a soothing manner and it took all his diplomacy and tact to calm the policeman. “Mrs. Johnson is a member of DHC, the Dream House Community, a game on Facebook…”
“Dream House? Never heard of it,” grumbled the policeman.
“Naturally you’ve heard of Facebook, haven’t you?” said the lawyer, and seeing him nod, he continued. “There is a group on Facebook that plays at building their dream house. A big group actually, some fifty million people across the world. They put their dream house up with the help of virtual architects and interior designers. They plan it so that their dream house is perfect, with everything they love and dream of having, including pets. Some have cats, others have dogs, or even cheetahs, pumas and baby tigers. Nice, since they’re virtual, they don’t eat you up or mess your house.”
“Naturally,” said the policeman, who hated to look stupid or uninformed.
 “And all the furniture people need for their dream house is acquired in virtual shops,” said the lawyer, not noticing the interruption. “All the knick knacks, paintings, sculptures, curtains, rugs, everything. And some of that antique or contemporary art can be quite expensive. Because Dream House Community members have to pay for it.”
“Not quite” said Mrs. Johnson. “One does make money when friends come and visit the house. They have to pay an entrance fee. Quite a few people visited mine,” she added proudly. “But I never earned enough. In the end, I had to put in my own money. I spent two hundred dollars to furnish my dream house! I want that money back!”
            The policeman looked confused. “So you have come for a two hundred dollar theft?”
“Either the money or you find my furniture!” said Mrs. Johnson.
“Find virtual furniture?” said the policeman, hesitant. His hand tapped nervously on the computer’s screen. Noticing that it caused the screen to waver and blur, he took it quickly away. He couldn’t think of any deposition form that would fit that kind of robbery. Good thing he was retiring next year – this was fast becoming an impossible job.
“Officer, it’s quite simple,” said the lawyer. “A hacker got into my client’s computer – somehow broke down the access code and password – and took away all the furnishings from her dream house.”
“Not a password,” said Mrs. Johnson. “It’s just an access code from my computer.”
“Yes, but the point is this: the hacker got into your computer and damaged your dream house,” said the lawyer. Then, turning to the policeman, he added: “I wanted you to observe how upset my client is. That is why I let her talk to you and explain what happened from her point of view. Because this is more than a simple robbery. You can appreciate, I’m sure, how profoundly hurt she is. This is emotional damage and we are going to sue the electronics game company that is responsible for the Dream House Community.”
“I don’t want to know anything about that or hear what you plan to do!” said the policeman. “I shall limit myself to taking down Mrs. Johnson’s deposition.”
“Thank you, Officer, that is all we ask for!” said the lawyer. “A simple deposition. Then we will ask for the ITA, the International Telecommunications Authority, to launch a full investigation into the matter!”
            Mrs. Johnson nodded, smiling on this bright young man, a friend of her daughter’s. Without him, she would never have known how to navigate her way through the legal maze of Internet.
*                *                 *
            Three months later, the clever young lawyer called on Mrs Johnson to give her the results of the investigation. She invited him in for a cup of tea. She was alone as her husband was out on a Google consultancy in China, and not due home before another week.
“Have they found my furniture? And the Jacuzzi?” she said, an eager look on her face. It occurred to the lawyer that she had the round face of  a baby, a grown-up one, with few wrinkles unless she smiled too broadly or cried. Everything was round about her: arms, tummy, legs, ankles. Her curly, blond hair and china blue eyes added to the childish look. Now she smiled at him, and the lines were deep around her mouth.
“I’m sorry. I’ve got bad news for you,” he said.
“Bad news? Oh, my God!” The lines around her mouth pointed downwards.
“Yes, all the furnishings were deleted.”
“Oh my God!” She put her hand in front of her mouth and the lawyer was grateful for that: at least, it hid some of those deep-set lines. “You mean nothing was found? Nothing at all? Not one small mirror?”
“Nothing.”
“And the electronics game company…Will they pay me back?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Why not? That’s unfair. They should pay! They should make a more secure game, one that cannot be broken into! That’s their responsibility!”
“Your dream house was not broken into. They were able to verify that!”
“Not broken into!What do you mean?”
“The house furnishings were deleted from your own computer. No one broke into your access code.”
“You mean they think I did it myself? That’s nonsense. That’s impossible!”
On cue, and just as the lawyer feared, she started to cry. She spilled half her tea cup on the floor but didn’t notice it. “But the hacker…Do they know who the hacker was?” she said. “The vile person who did that to me?”
            The lawyer shook his head.
“You mean they don’t know who did it?”
“I’m afraid not,” mumbled the lawyer.
“They can’t find him? How is that possible? What kind of rotten investigation was this? What’s this world coming to!” And she wailed, dropping the rest of the tea onto the floor.
            The lawyer remained silent, drinking his tea without spilling a single drop. How could he tell her that the investigators had become convinced that only one person could have done it : her own husband. He had the opportunity – the computer had been left running –  and the motive.  He could sympathize with the old man. Poor guy, seeing his wife, night after night, stuck in front of the computer, wandering around and around in her dream house, instead of coming to bed with him…

Do you like it? Can you guess where I got the idea from?No, not from the article below but I attached it all the same: it's a great compilation of memorable heists!
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10.22.2010

Haiti vs. Pakistan: 10 to 1, Haiti Wins in the First Round of Humanitarian Aid

The coat of arms of Pakistan displays the nati...Coat of arms of Haiti
Imagine humanitarian aid as a soccer game. Then, Haiti would beat Pakistan in a BIG way. Really. Pakistan comes out as the loser on every count, both in absolute and relative  terms.

In Haiti, there are a little over one million victims, and ten times as many in Pakistan. Yet the flow of aid going to the latter is NOT ten times as much. On the contrary. It is  ONE TENTH!
 
Yes, you read that right: the score is 10 to 1.

Why? Has the world a special love for Haiti and a special hatred for Pakistan? Not at all. It's all a matter of politics. Pakistan has suffered from an explosive mix of distrust, corruption, ignorance and indifference.


Let me count the ways.

First, Pakistan is just not as good a story as Haiti. It's in the wrong part of the world, far away in Asia rather than on the back door of the United States and Canada. The religion is different (Moslem, not Christian). The language is incomprehensible (Haiti's form of French is a little bizarre but it has charm). I hear you: you're going to say that the Tsunami also hit Asia, with lots of Moslems and people who spoke incomprehensible languages. True enough. But at the time, there was no similar and previous disasters elsewhere. The Tsunami catastrophy stood on its own.

Second: Pakistan was hit after Haiti. They were some six months apart and by the time floods devastated Pakistan, the international community was suffering from aid fatigue. That's an ugly disease, but understandable. Donors, both public and private, had just emptied their pockets and now they had to reach down for the dough again. Too much!

Third point: donating is particularly difficult in these times of Great Recession.  Back when the Tsunami hit in 2004, we were all feeling rich. At the time, no Government talked about budget deficits and austerity measures (with the exception of Japan that was already suffering from deflation). When the earthquake hit Haiti, the Great Recession was in full swing but Governments were still talking about stimulus packages and not worrying about deficits. Unfortunately, by the time Pakistan needed help this summer, all the talk was about deficits and looking for ways to cut back on expenses. Dark clouds had gathered on the economic horizon, and they were not about to blow away. Result? Aid for Pakistan is not at the top of anybody's agenda. The EU is an exception and has offered aid, but it hasn't been followed by European governments.

Four:  donors are hesitant about Pakistan because of local politics. Ok, neither Pakistan nor Haiti are paragons of democratic virtue. Indeed, in this respect, Haiti and Pakistan are in an odd race to outdo each other: it is hard to decide which is worse, which suffers more from corruption, illegality and blatant cases of injustice. But Pakistan's brand of corruption meshes with the Afghan/Taliban/War-on-Terror mess.

The conclusion?  Pakistan is left behind. And the latest news - the US will provide 2 billion dollars in military aid - is just adding insult to the injury suffered by the flood victims. Yes, because with all that money going to the military, it isn't very likely, is it, that something will be left for them...In the meantime, the absence of international donors opens the door to militants from Islam, who have rushed in with a lot of fanfare, to help their brothers. Lately we haven't heard much from them, and I wonder where they are and whether they are still helping out. Does anybody know?

Is Haiti better off? Hardly. With all the funds supposedly flowing to Haiti over the past 9 months, the involved "authorities" both in Haiti (the government) and abroad (the donors) have been discussing endlessly how to spend them. Precious little has been done on the ground. The rubble is still overflowing in the streets, and just one group of entrepreneurs with a few machines has started to work to remove them. Major cleanup and rebuilding is only expected to start...NEXT year!  Most of the victims are still living in refugee camps and makeshift tents. And now cholera has descended on them. Some 1500 persons are already sick and 135 dead. Of course, the same fate threatens refugees in Pakistan...but will we hear about them? 

This is a dreadful second round in the humanitarian aid going - or rather not going - to both countries...The way things are set now, my guess is that the score Haiti vs Pakistan, will be  0-0...     


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10.19.2010

What's the matter with France? A small tweak to the retirement age has sent them crazy...

Burning car in StrasbourgCar burning in France notfrancois via Flickr
President Sarkozy tried to add just two years to the retirement age limit - raising it from 60 to 62 - and the French have gone beserk!

Compared to the rest of the world, the limit in France is already quite low: in  most countries (Italy excepted, of course - but Italy in many respects is just like France, its latin sister), people work until they are 65, and in many places, for example the UK, people are happy working well into their seventies.  Retirement age varies from country to country, but the basic idea is to retire people if (a) their work is too dangerous (for example, the military),  (b) it requires unimpaired physical capicities (airline pilots), or (c) it is physically too demanding (miners).

All of this implies that work conditions and a person's health and capacity for it should be reviewed before deciding on retirement. That would be the only fair and logical approach. Instead of establishing measures to allow for an ad hoc retirement age, Governments tend to pass blanket legislations calling for an equal retirement age for everybody in every kind of work. Ridiculous!

Yet, that's not what people object to. No, they focus on the age limit and nothing else. And, generally speaking, they don't want any reform. Naturally, this is true of public opinion anywhere in the world: it is always very, very conservative: no changes! DO NOT TOUCH! That's the rallying slogan.

In the case of France, this attitude has been carried to an extreme. It's hard to believe that the country which has invented Cartesianism and rationalism can suddenly throw all reason to the wind. They look quite simply absurd. They've closed down a dozen refineries and threaten a massive stop to transportation, with no planes landing or leaving France, no trains, and French truckers blocking the highways. Lycée kids, some 500,000 of them, have been running in the streets and burning cars, all in the name of defending a retirement age that should be of no concern to them. Worse, if they stopped to think about it (but they don't), keeping the status quo would mean only one thing: by the time they retire forty years from now, the State coffers will be empty and no one will get a pension at age 60, 62 or perhaps even any age at all. I watched an interview on French television of one of those kids - a pretty 15 year-old - who declared in anxious tones that if the retirement limit was raised, there would be no job openings for them by the time they'd be looking to work. That kind of reasoning is appalling! As if the job market was a pie of a set, immovable size and you had to wait for people to retire in order to move in...

It is very clear that to save pension funds from financial collapse, some serious reforms will have to be carried out, including raising the age limit. Sarkozy's proposal of raising it by 2 years was just a first, small and necessary step in the right direction. Many more steps are sure to come, particularly as the general population is aging, and there will be fewer working people with respect to the numbers that have retired. After all, life expectancy has been rising, we all live longer on average and working two more years shouldn't be so hard.

Some people have argued that this issue has simply been latched on by the Left as a way to regain power. It is true that the Left in France has very few ideas and even fewer politicians worth their salt. The two leading women (Martine Aubry and Ségolène Royal) are at odds with each other, not to mention the fact that they have no ideological platform of any kind. Perhaps the only French politician of any stature on the left is Dominique Strauss Kahn, but he is busy at the helm of the IMF. However, to pick the retirement age as a banner issue takes the cake!  It proves that the Left has lost its rudder and has literally no new ideas to offer.
But is it a smart move? It probably is. Playing on the lower instincts of the population - the fact that it is uninformed, scared and deeply suspicious of change and novelty - will pay dividends and that's what the French Left (and the trade unions) are doing. The Senate vote this week (or next) - following on the lower chamber approval - will be the last step in approving the change. In all likelihood, since Sarkozy has a majority there, they will support the proposal.

Is that going to be a defeat for the Left? Probably not. Le Parisien has made a survey that is much talked about in France and has been reported by Alan Cowell in the New York Times. It would seem that strikers are gaining ground, and their position was approved by 71 percent of those interviewed. It was a small sample survey (some 2000 people interviewed) but everyone latched on to the magic numbers: "seven Frenchman out of 10 support us!", claimed Martine Aubry with undisguised glee on television. Indeed. But it's a fact that all political commentators expect Sarkozy to further lose popularity.

Maybe he will. Maybe not. But what worries me is what is left unsaid in this situation: how can public opinion - obviously manipulated by some ambitious politicians and die-hard trade unionists - pretend to determine the outcome of what is only the normal working of democracy. A duly elected parliament discusses the retirement issue and then it proceeds to vote on it. That's it. That's how democracy should work, and all the screaming and burning in the streets should have nothing to do with it.

What we are looking at in France is not a democracy at work, but a...MOB-CRACY, if I may be permitted the term.Or perhaps mobocracy? It sounds better. In a mobocracy, people who dissent don't wait for the next elections to roll around. They march in the street and blow up the place.

How would you like to live in a mobocracy? 




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10.12.2010

Is Global Warming a Bubble about to Burst?

Shows the pattern of temperature and ice volum...Image via Wikipedia
Have you wondered lately about how real Global Warming is? Here in Italy we've had the coolest summer in the last 20 years and the coming winter bodes ill: more rain and bad weather. And that seems to be the case in many parts of the globe: flooding, rains, waves of unusual cold weather.

Is a second Ice Age coming? Of course not.
We've gone through bouts of "unusual" weather before and countless divergences from the "norm" (whatever that "norm" is).

The UN Panel on Climate Change has confirmed the planet is heating up and everyone agrees it's Man's Fault. Glaciers are melting, ice on the poles is collapsing in the sea, white bears are threatened with extinction, whole countries at sea level will find themselves under water, extreme events like floods and tsunami will accelerate, etc etc Politicians are meeting in China to prepare for the next round after the Copenhagen disaster. That meeting collapsed in large part as a result of the so-called "Climate Gate", i.e. the airing  of emails from some important scientists that questioned the conclusions of the UN Panel.

Now comes another blow to the fans of Global Warming. A respectable physicist and a major scientist of our time, Professor Harold Lewis who is Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has just called Global Warming a fraud in his letter of resignation to the American Physical Society    I can't resist quoting large chunks from from it:
Dear Curt [This is the President of the Society - Curtis G. Callan Jr, Princeton University]
When I first joined the American Physical Society sixty-seven years ago it was much smaller, much gentler, and as yet uncorrupted by the money flood (a threat against which Dwight Eisenhower warned a half-century ago)...
How different it is now. The giants no longer walk the earth, and the money flood has become the raison d’être of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs. For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.
It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist [highlight added]...
So what has the APS, as an organization, done in the face of this challenge? It has accepted the corruption as the norm, and gone along with it. For example:
1. About a year ago a few of us sent an e-mail on the subject to a fraction of the membership... In its better days, APS used to encourage discussion of important issues, and indeed the Constitution cites that as its principal purpose. No more. Everything that has been done in the last year has been designed to silence debate
2. The appallingly tendentious APS statement on Climate Change was apparently written in a hurry by a few people over lunch... So a few of us petitioned the Council to reconsider it... In response APS appointed a secret committee that never met, never troubled to speak to any skeptics, yet endorsed the Statement in its entirety... The original Statement, which still stands as the APS position, also contains what I consider pompous and asinine advice to all world governments, as if the APS were master of the universe...
3. In the interim the ClimateGate scandal broke into the news, and the machinations of the principal alarmists were revealed to the world. It was a fraud on a scale I have never seen, and I lack the words to describe its enormity. Effect on the APS position: none. None at all. This is not science; other forces are at work.
4. So a few of us tried to bring science into the act (that is, after all, the alleged and historic purpose of APS), and collected the necessary 200+ signatures to bring to the Council a proposal for a Topical Group on Climate Science, thinking that open discussion of the scientific issues, in the best tradition of physics, would be beneficial to all, and also a contribution to the nation...
5. To our amazement, Constitution be damned, you declined to accept our petition, but instead used your own control of the mailing list to run a poll on the members’ interest in a TG on Climate and the Environment. You did ask the members if they would sign a petition to form a TG on your yet-to-be-defined subject, but provided no petition, and got lots of affirmative responses...
6. As of now you have formed still another secret and stacked committee to organize your own TG, simply ignoring our lawful petition.
APS management has gamed the problem from the beginning, to suppress serious conversation about the merits of the climate change claims. Do you wonder that I have lost confidence in the organization?
I do feel the need to add one note, and this is conjecture, since it is always risky to discuss other people’s motives... Some have held that the physicists of today are not as smart as they used to be, but I don’t think that is an issue. I think it is the money, exactly what Eisenhower warned about a half-century ago. There are indeed trillions of dollars involved, to say nothing of the fame and glory (and frequent trips to exotic islands) that go with being a member of the club. [highlight added] Your own Physics Department (of which you are chairman) would lose millions a year if the global warming bubble burst. When Penn State absolved Mike Mann of wrongdoing, and the University of East Anglia did the same for Phil Jones, they cannot have been unaware of the financial penalty for doing otherwise. As the old saying goes, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing...
I want no part of it, so please accept my resignation. APS no longer represents me, but I hope we are still friends.
Hal
I've cut out some minor points but you're welcome to follow the link and  read the whole letter.

It's an eye-opener.

Now, this "Hal" is someone with an extraordinary cv:  Former member Defense Science Board, chmn of Technology panel; Chairman DSB study on Nuclear Winter; Former member Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards; Former member, President’s Nuclear Safety Oversight Committee; Chairman APS study on Nuclear Reactor Safety; Chairman Risk Assessment Review Group; Co-founder and former Chairman of JASON; Former member USAF Scientific Advisory Board; Served in US Navy in WW II; books: Technological Risk (about, surprise, technological risk) and Why Flip a Coin (about decision making).

Has the man gone crazy? I don't think so. He mentions several times in his letter the trillions of dollars that are behind the Climate Change hoax...if it is a hoax, of course - let's not jump to conclusions quite yet. But when there is that kind of money involved, it is worrisome.Opportunities for corruption are only too numerous...

Let me count the ways in which this Climate Change hypothesis (better call it that - it's a neutral term) is not entirely convincing. And the ways I'm counting are just those that I see from my modest standpoint as an informed citizen, nothing more.
1. There is a world-wide and historic tendency to collect temperature near urban agglomerations (this is natural, that's where the weather stations were first located). But this tilts averages towards the high end and distorts historic trends, since cities are notoriously warmer environments than the countryside; so it is just possible that the warming trend that has been detected is not quite as warm as it is made out to be.
2. As the historical data shows (to the extent that it is credible) ice temperatures have been going through ups and downs at least as large (if not larger) than the one we are now experiencing (see chart above going back 450 thousand years); it is therefore hard to see why one would conclude that the present warming is caused by human activities;
3. With global warming there should be an acceleration in extreme events, but is it really happening? The devastating floods in Pakistan this summer and now in China and Vietnam seem to point to this. Everytime we turn on the news we hear of another humongous catastrophy. True enough. But to what extent are these caused by global warming? I suspect that the soaring number of victims is caused just as much by demography: the earth is overpopulated and people have been settling now for decades in highly marginal and unstable environments. That was very strikingly the case in Pakistan in the Sindh valley, where farmers have settled in areas where none used to live 35 years ago. Hence the disaster when the Indus river and its affluents overflowed.
4. Admitting that the present warming  is only a natural divergence from the "norm", how much should we worry? How much should we invest to prevent future disasters?  Nature has an amazing capacity to regenerate itself. If you leave it alone, it tends to regenerate itself faster than if you try to "help it out". With the BP spill in the Golf of Mexico we have been reminded how true this is - yet that truth was given little space. From past experience,  it was known by scientists that the chemicals meant to dissolve the spilling oil can do more damage to flora and fauna than the oil itself. Instead of refraining from using these chemicals, millions were spent to pour them all over the place. There are two advantages to doing this stupid thing: one, the chemical producers make money, and two, you look like you're doing something and you earn political kudos. Bah!
5. Last but not least, the main point made by our professor of physics in his letter of resignation: there are trillions of dollars involved in research and in "green technology". The vested interests in global warming are HUGE! And the effects can be worse than a Tsunami. Take for example wind turbines. They are all the rage across Europe. Here in Italy, forests of loud and unsightly windmills are covering beautiful stretches of coastline and even lovely inner valleys although it is well known that on the Italian peninsula, in places far away from the sea, the wind is  fickle and unreliable. But there is political support and money incentives - so the wind turbines go up, regardless. A perfect example of how the hype around climate change has encouraged governments to adopt market-distoring measures distorting the market all the while feeling virtuous about it.

What makes me sad in all this is the role of the UN. It should have been above dispute. It should have remained clean and honest. This UN Panel on Climate Change was supposed to attract the best minds and the best science...What happened? I don't know. Perhaps it got out of hand: too many scientists, too many people involved and not enough quality control. Quality control? Yes, that may not have been done the right way. In principle, you should establish TWO committees: a large one that does the work and a small one which spotchecks the other's output. I don't believe that the UN Panel's work followed that procedure - yet it is standard procedure in my specialty, programme evaluation (something I've done for over 20 years).

What a pity, this was clearly a lost opportunity.  My hope is that something will be done - that the debate will re-open and produce the basis for a CREDIBLE global warming summit. Then it could still be held, if not this year in Mexico, next year somewhere else.

Wouldn't it be nice if climate change could be addressed directly without the hype, accusations and finger pointing that offuscate the real issues? Real issues like how to make agriculture resilient to higher temperatures, or how to contain the effects of natural disasters with measures to stabilize fragile environments or stop people from settling there without adequate protection.

Climate warming is not a bubble about to burst (just look at the chart above: the polar ice, whether for human causes or not, is definitely rising).What should burst is the hype around it, but with human nature being what it is,  I doubt that it will...
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10.08.2010

Is China a Flaming Dragon or a Harmonious Bird Song?

Detail from The Procession of the Trojan Horse...The Trojan Horse procession - Detail from a Domenico Tieopolo (1773) painting

Knowing something more about China is particularly important these days as we are facing a real  invasion of Europe by the Chinese - so far peaceful, since these are mainly tourists, students and businessmen. The latest episode, of course, being the Chinese offer to the Greek to help them out with a €5 billion fund, certainly a welcome breath of fresh air for the battered Greek economy (and, consequently the Euro)...and a Trojan Horse entry into Europe, as the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also called, inter alia, for dropping the last barriers against their high-tech exports.And the whole thing is threatening to degenerate in a war of words over currency exchange rates, the EU now joining the US in accusing China of keeping the Renmimbi too low. I bet this is a war that is going to last a long time, because the Chinese are not about to give up manipulating their currency, or, more generally, give up their ways...

Recently I watched on TV a fascinating report about Chinese youth and how it is preparing itself to invade the world and about its young businessmen and how they expatriate themselves to better tackle the West. It was aired on ARTE - I think I've mentioned this Franco-Germain TV channel before: they produce some fabulous documentaries, especially in their THEMA series. If you have a chance to watch ARTE, don't miss it! This was one of the better ones. Frankly I learned a lot about the Chinese forma mentis and it was a true eye-opener.

I'd like to share with you what I learned and then you tell me what you know, and let's see if we agree!
Let me tackle the second documentary first: the student side. The documentary, realized by Ms. Meerman, followed 5 students over a whole schoolyear at the prestigious "Middle School" in Chongqing, a town in Central China (urban population: 6 million; the municipality as a whole has over 31 million - numbers in China are always enormous!). It showed how the school prepares its 1500 students for the entrance exams in top Chinese universities, the most desirable ones being  Beijing Normal and Tsinghua. These kids follow a harrowing study programme, six days a week, from 7:30 am to 10:30 pm, and work even on Sunday. Most live at school in dorms as they come from poor families in the countryside. A minority of better-off urban families offer their children outside accomodations, but all families have one thing in common: the sacrifice they make to see their children through this school. For it is very expensive and the State does not pay for it. As a result, the pressure on the kids is immense and everyone is expected to succeed.

This brought to mind the kind of intense pressure French parents place on their children to enter the Grandes Ecoles. It's strikingly the same. But in China, the rethoric used by the School Director in his speeches to his students and teachers is of a kind you never hear in the West: how China has to honour its ancient glorious past and reconquer its place in the world, ahead of everyone, particularly the United States. Yes, the Chinese are convinced the 21st century is theirs and they are preparing their youth to make it to the top. One kid mentioned how his fondest dream was to become rich like Bill Gates! In short, the Chinese are on their way up, an emerging economy fast becoming a developed one, and all this is only normal hype. Nothing to really worry about, we've been ourselves through precisely this stage in our own development.

What the documentary however didn't say was perhaps even more significant: a couple of days later, reading the New York Times, I learned that China is suffering from a wave of faked and plagiarized research, affecting scholars and probably discouraging future Chinese cooperation with scientists abroad. Last summer, a study of the China Association for Science and technology found that 55% of 32,000 scientists they interviewed said they knew someone guilty of fraud. Not only that. The culture of fakery has apparently also invaded the world of students, who, under the pressure to succeed, cave in and adopt cheating as a normal, even culturally acceptable, behaviour. Here is the link to that fascinating article : Rampant Fraud Threat to China Brisk Ascent

Turning now to the other documentary: the business side. This was illustrated by interviews, ably produced by Christian Schidlowski, with four young Chinese living in Hamburg, Germany - reportedly the largest Chinese community in Europe. By the way, in the Chinese language, Hamburg is called "Hanbao", which literally means "the Chinese fortress"...The Trojan Horse again!

The four Chinese interviewed were very different: a single mother working in a bank and specializing in financing maritime transport; a young entrepreneur who'd established a flourishing tourism agency in Hamburg and wanted to stimulate German investment in a magnesium mine in China; a young female manager who'd flown in from China to inaugurate with the Hamburg Mayor in attendance a very flashy tea house/restaurant/cultural centre in a new Chinese-style pavilion; and a middle-level manager of the China Shipping company outposted in their Hamburg office. All four very ambitious, all adapting to Germany in different ways - from total immersion in Germany and feeling they belonged to both countries equally, to rejecting Germany and wanting to return home. Which is natural.

The funniest scene was filmed in China, when the young entrepreneur took two German investors to visit the magnesium mine. The delegation was received by local authorities in the traditional manner, including a vast banquet dinner, with glass after glass of Mao Tai - a terribly strong drink (53°) that you cannot refuse without hurting your hosts' feelings. Even the cameraman had to drink and as a result ended with perfusions in the hospital. Early the next morning, the delegation went on a visit to the mine and stood for the customary official photographs... looking a little worn-out. We were not told whether they invested in the mine or not.

The documentary made you feel that these Chinese were exactly like so many expatriate people you meet in your own life:  friendly and open, they like to eat (well) and drink (a lot), they worry about good schools for their children and want them to learn Chinese so they do not forget their cultural roots, and above all, they want to make money.  They want the Good Life.

What these Chinese said about Germany,  their host country, was particularly interesting. The Chinese viewpoint on us is something you rarely come across. It would seem that they admire Germans for their capacity to turn out  "precise" or high quality work: they feel that in this respect, China, in spite of all its extraordinary advances over the past 30 years - the roads built and the forest of skyscrapers, the fast trains etc - still has something to learn from the West.  But  the one that struck me most was the young woman working in the bank. She explained how she found it sometimes difficult both at work and in the university to express her opinion, particularly when she had to disagree or criticize - when, for example, she had to reject a not well-justified demand for financing. It was hard for her to do this because it went counter to one of her most important values: harmony.

The Chinese feel that dissent breaks down harmony, and they view harmony as a major feature in inter-personal relations. Of course, it is something that goes back to Confucius and it is at the heart of their culture. The Mayor of Hamburg, coming out of the tea house inauguration, declared that there were several things we could learn from the Chinese, chief among them serenity. Serenity? Yes, it is linked to harmony. Obviously. All that sounds very peaceful and civilized.

But it occured to me that there is a more ominous side to this. If one views dissent as a threat to harmony, what remains of our cherished Western concepts of Human Rights and Individual Freedom? In the West, the right to dissent is fundamental. In China, to dissent is impolite. It goes counter to their culture, to the way they are, the way they inter-relate. That is worrisome. And it goes a long way to explain how the Communist Party manages to remain in power even though it has unleashed an astonishing wave of private capitalism, flowing over China and out of it like a Tsunami.

It is impolite to dissent with the Party... So is China a flaming dragon or a harmonious bird song? Take your pick!

A footnote: as I was about to publish this, news came out that the Nobel Prize for Peace went to Literary critic, writer, and political activist Liu Xiaobo, who is serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese prison. The Chinese state media immediately blacked out the news and Chinese government censors reportedly blocked Nobel prize reports from websites. So I imagine no one will read my post in China!

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10.05.2010

Italy, an Example of What Not to Do to Get out of the Recession ?

emblem of the Italian Republic
Is Italy adrift, is it about to drown? Everything seems to conspire against recovery in this once happy, go-lucky country - really the second economic power in Europe after Germany. Yes, the second if one includes the "submerged economy": some 20 to 30 percent of total GNP (those are all the small businesses that don't pay tax and thus escape being counted in the statistics).

The numbers are dire. ISTAT, the Italian statistical bureau, has announced that Italian labour productivity has plunged to minus 2,7 percent in August, while Germany's and France's were both up. Actually labour productivity in Italy has been slipping steadily over the past ten years, at an average of 0,5 percent. Doesn't sound like much, but it is, if you consider that in the same time period Germany's productivity has risen by 16% and France's by 20%.

This growing gap is really worrying  the Italians who count - I mean responsible politicians and businessmen and women, foremost among them Emma Marcegaglia, the very vocal and active President of Confindustria, the Italian industrial managers association. Bini Smaghi, a Vice-President at the European Central Bank, had some devastating things to say about his country (see the article attached below).  Marchionne, the head of Fiat, a couple of days ago had some harsh words that made headlines in all the national papers. He said Italy was "senza bussola" (without a compass), that it had lost the "sense of the institutions", i.e. "as if someone had opened the doors of the zoo and all had gotten out". He complained that in his travels around the world (and since he is also at the helm of Chrysler, he travels a lot) it is becoming harder and harder to explain what is happening in Italy.

Indeed, what exactly is happening in Italy?

First, whatever statistics you use to describe the situation, particularly official ISTAT numbers, have to be taken with a HUGE grain of salt. As I've said, you need to correct them with whatever is happening in the "submerged economy" and of course, that's a bit of a black box. It used to be a roaring sector of the Italian economy, competing successfully against the globalization tide - largely a result of  its ability to keep wages low since it didn't pay taxes nor participated in the costly national security system.

Probably because of the submerged economy, the Italian model has always baffled foreign observers. The country several times over the past fifty years has managed  to unexpectedly jump forward, defeating all dismal predictions: in the 1960s first (the famous "economic miracle" after excruciating poverty in the post-war period). Then  in the 1980s, with the "made in Italy" formula that broke new ground in international trade and secured for Italy a very profitable niche market. There was a slow down in the 1990s and then a tiny rebound in the early 2000s, but by 2007, on the eve of the Big Recession, the economy had slowed down again. Except for agriculture, commerce and some specialized luxury industries (example: nautical), Italy was in slow-down mode in practically all its sectors.

Why? Because Italy was (and is) suffering from long-standing problems, some of which have afflicted the country since its foundation in the 1860s - like a machiavellically complex bureaucracy inherited from the Austrian Empire (and other empires before it), coupled with a fiscal system that seems especially designed to slow the economy down and discourage anybody from working. Italian conventional wisdom is that you can work and live happily in this country only as long as the government doesn't notice you exist. They have an extraordinary centuries-old saying that beautifully expresses this state of affairs: "piove,  governo ladro!" It rains, the government is a thief!

But there are other problems, of course, chief among them the trade-unions, some of the strongest, most radically communist-inspired in Europe. Italy really suffers from an obsolete model of industrial relations. There are three big unions, two of which are beginning to show a certain sense of responsability, but the third, the Cgil, will have none of it. So far. There is yet another meeting tomorrow with the major business managers in the country. Something might come out of this encounter, but I doubt it. In any case, it will take a long time to undo the damage the trade unions have done to the economy - a damage that can be summarized in two short sentences: they've kept salaries too high in relation to productivity; they've kept out the young and protected for too long people useless in their jobs, thus becoming a machine to protect vested interests. A cause of rigidity in the labour market. No wonder small enterprises stay small in Italy: it is the only way to escape becoming unionized (by law you have to keep your staff below 15 people).

The other big problems are the cost of energy (rising) and globalization, with its accompanying phenomena of trade competition and outsourcing. As to the cost of energy, it affects everyone - and not just Italy. So I won't go into it here.Globalization is far more interesting and has taken an unexpected turn in the Italian submerged sector. As I've said, it's hard to figure out what might be going on in there, but there are some indirect indications. For example, the textile industry in Prato (north of Florence). An interesting report from the Monash Asia Institute (Australia) showed how small enterprises in Prato are increasingly falling into the hands of Chinese immigrants, both legal and illegal.As the author of that report writes, "Prato’s Chinese community thus accounts for approximately one fifth of the entire Chinese population (100,000) in Italy", or about  10% of a population of 180,000 - three times the average percentage of the Chinese community in Europe.

That's a lot! Prato is a real Trojan Horse for the Chinese invasion! The situation in Prato was also recently investigated by the New York Times which pointed how the Chinese, working in about 3,200 small textile businesses have managed to beat the Italians at their own game. As the NYT put it,  the Chinese, taking advantage of Italy's "weak institutions and high tolerance of rule bending", have succeeded in creating "a thriving, if largely underground, new sector while many Prato businesses have gone under." In short, we are seeing ruthless, jungle-like capitalistic competition at its worst, with the authorities apparently unable to intervene. No rule of law here.

That sort of thing hurts precisely the one Italian sector - the "underground" or submerged economy - that had so far escaped from not only taxes but downturns in the business cycle. No more. It looks like outsourcing is a two-way street, and the "made in Italy" is becoming blurred with the "made in China". That is a very frightening prospect and many Italian managers are having sleepless nights over this.

Is the Italian model - the "made in Italy" niche in international trade - a thing of the past? Hard to say, but I am not all that pessimistic. Bottom line, it's intelligence that wins the day, and the Italians have shown over their history that they have a lot of it. Even if contrary to the Americans,  they don't invest in Research and Development anywhere near the necessary funds and Italian venture capital investments are minuscule. In 2009, only €98 million were invested in Italy as compared to €500 million in France. Five times as little!

Yet, even on a shoe-string, they manage to go forward. Let me mention just one initiative that was recently reported in the Sole 24 Ore: a major Italian bank, Intesa Sanpaolo, has set up a yearly "Start-Up Initiative" (now at its 5th year) bringing together young entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. This year's event was focussed on innovations in green technology, and the next one is programmed for nanotechnologies. Then the Bank will move abroad, with meetings planned in London, Frankfurt and Israel. The beneficiaries of this initiative are young Italian entrepreneurs with a bright idea (the example reported in the Sole 24 Ore was production of biocarburant in Ghana). To participate in the event, these young people have to face a hard selection process: out of a total 170, only 26 were approved by the Bank to present their business plan. Perhaps this selection process is too harsh - who knows - but at least something is done, and candidates with innovative ideas are obviously numerous. That speaks for a young, dynamic society, doesn't it?

Then there's another positive factor at work: Italians, believe it or not, are fairly chauvinistic. Not as much as the French, but they do like to defend their culture and their cuisine. More importantly, they often put their money into it - and that, in economic terms, makes a lot of difference. Developing countries have always had a hard time developing because over time their elites have stashed away their money in Switzerland and other havens instead of investing at home. Italian business is not like that - and, above all, Fiat, the very symbol of Italian industry. Today, it produces more cars in its Polish factory than in all its five Italian factories combined. Yet, the €20 billion it plans to invest to overhaul its production, as Marchionne recently remarked, will not go to Poland (which might have made more economic sense) but to Italy. And that is bound to make a big, big difference!

All is not yet lost for Italy - as soccer fans say, "Forza Italia!" But don't misread me. That's not meant as a reference to Berlusconi's party or the slogan he so cleverly crafted for his party. Not at all. Berlusconi is another story for another post: in my view, his time is past, he's an old man, he hasn't done the half of what he should have done to fight the recession...We'll see who, among the younger managerial generation, will make it to the top and push the country back on track! 
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10.03.2010

Is Structural Unemployment a Bad Joke?

U.S. Job Seekers Exceed Openings by Record Ratio

I can't believe it! One of my favourite economists  let me down last week. I'm speaking of Paul Krugman, one of the best columnists on the New York Times, a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2008, someone who's remarkable in every way.

Read the article I attached below. It's unbelievable, I tell you!  He just did himself in - that is, of course, in my humble opinion. He went for every conventional wisdom in the book. What a pity!

Yet I fully support his basic message - it makes a lot of sense: it is URGENT that governments tackle the problem of unemployment. For as I've said before in an earlier post, this is truly the BIGGEST problem we are facing NOW. But to tackle unemployment, we have to know what kind of beast it is. And it's not just a disease linked to the business cycle and a lack of demand, as Krugman (and most economists with him) would have it. Sure, it is that too, but it is ALSO a structural disease - something much deeper, like cancer. And like that dread disease, it's been lurking in the background, half-hidden from view, for a long time now - in my view, for at least the past 30 or 40 years .  And this time around, with the Great Recession, it has made cyclical unemployment - the one caused by a crash in demand - much, much worse. And longer lasting. And harder to get out of.

Anyone with kids fresh out of college, with their brand new university degree under the arm, will tell you that structural unemployment is no figment of the imagination.

It exists, and how!

Back in the fabled '60s when I graduated, it was easy to get a job. I immediately started with First National City Bank (as it was called in those days) and went on to a big publisher at the time, Harper & Row. Since then, they've both changed name and capital assets, and I've moved on to greener pastures in Europe. But I never had any trouble finding a job, my Columbia University degree always acting as a wonderful passport into the job market. But contrary winds started to blow in the 1970s when the price of petrol quadrupled and the boom years based on cheap energy came to an end. Things picked up with the Internet/personal computer revolution in the 1980s, but that too petered out, after 9/11 and the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York (btw, no correlation intended and none exists!). The result? Young people  in the West, trained the way I was, no longer easily breeze into the job market. They have to work at it hard and learn to wait patiently for an opening.

And the same fate befalls quite a few graduates from developing countries who can't find a job at home and take the immigration route.

And it's not just a problem of the young. See the picture above! People seeking jobs are 6 times as many as the job openings in the US. And it's just as bad in some European countries, if not worse (see Spain or Ireland). If you've worked your whole life and you're forty or fifty years old, it's not just an unemployment problem, it's a nightmare.


So this is the long-standing problem that needs to be addressed. Krugman is right in one thing at least: the way governments say they are going to tackle structural unemployment is next-to-useless. It is practically an excuse for inaction. They always talk about (and sometimes invest in) programmes to recycle/train people in new skills or in updating their old skills. As if that was the whole answer to structural unemployment.  It is that too, but it is much, MUCH MORE. 

As I've said before, it requires an integrated approach similar to the one used by the World Bank and other major players in the development community - from the United Nations Development Programme to technical agencies and major Non-Governmental Organizations such as Oxfam or CARE. It is a well-tested approach - it's been in use for the past 40 years and is predicated on four essential steps:
(1) evaluate first the state of research to identify opportunities for quick innovation;
(2) set up lead institutions to guide investment and/or establish public-private partnerships to finance innovative, lead projects;
(3) test them out with small, short pilot projects and finance the best ones, those with the highest returns and easiest to duplicate;
(4) train people for the new projects: that is when training people to update their skills or give them new ones come into play. It's the last step in the process.

For you don't just train people in anything they don't happen to know just for the pleasure of it. People receiving training need an assurance that at the end of what is always a big effort - especially for adults who've been out of school for a long time- it will pay off in terms of a new, well-paid secure job. So everything has to be done first (see the first above-mentioned 3 steps) BEFORE embarking on a training programme.

What is needed is a concerted effort from every vital element in society - from the research people in universities and private laboratories to venture capitalists to public servants in the state treasury and finance. 

And to suggest that structural unemployment doesn't exist is a very, very bad joke...That kind of argument won't get us anywhere!

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