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11.08.2010

What's in a Pizza? A Calorie Bomb!

Picture of an authentic Neapolitan Pizza Margh...
How many calories in a pizza? The New York Times recently reported that in a quarter of a pizza, there could be as much as 430 calories...that's about one quarter of the number of calories allowed per day, assuming your are not aiming to become obese in the shortest possible time!

Of course, we're talking here about American pizza, which is vastly different from the stuff we eat in Italy. American pizza is chockful of cheese, even up to six different kinds of cheese and yet more cheese worked into the crust (!). I'm not sure who makes them, whether Dominos Pizza or Pizza Hut, but they're definitely not Italian. Pizza in Italy - the birthplace of pizza - can even be entirely devoid of any cheese and generally has only small quantities of mozzarella and never, NEVER, does one add cheese to the bread dough. A cheesy crust? Pouah! What you want is a nice contrast between the filling and the crust, not something that is entirely cheesy from top to bottom!

This said, Neapolitans are also the authors of an unbelievably caloric pizza: they make fried pizza. Imagine, a pizza filled with cheese and sausage (!), then neatly folded on itself, and deep-fried! Deeelicious! But no one's ever bothered to count the calories, nor eat the stuff on a regular basis. In fact, my advice is: don't!
American cheese consumption has reportedly tripled since the 1970s, and today, American nutritionists consider that cheese is the major culprit in the wave of obesity engulfing the country. And, of course, the obesity wave is fast coming to Europe too, and no doubt for the same reasons (is there anybody around who doesn't like French and Italian cheese? Not to mention the Swiss, the Dutch etc).  The problem is that an ounce of cheese (not all but most varieties) contains as much saturated fat as a glass of whole milk. And cheese is a major source of sodium, another no-no. All of this is bad for your figure and bad for your heart.
As you can observe from the many articles and blogs I've listed below, this is fast becoming a subject of national debate in the US: pizza as the main source of obesity - or rather, cheese.

The real scandal uncovered by the American press is that the US Department of Agriculture - or rather a branch of it called Dairy Management -  is actually the one behind several campaigns to promote milk and especially cheese consumption, as a way to help dairy farmers that produce far more milk than they can sell on the market. Because too much milk is produced as a result of technological advances that have made American dairy farms among the most productive and efficient in the world. Until some years ago, the excess milk was shipped abroad in the form of aid to developing countries but now, the law has changed and the excess milk has to somehow be absorbed in the American market. As everybody knows, the best way to consume vast quantities of milk is through cheese consumption (after all, cheese is nothing but a condensed form of milk). Hence the US Government's efforts at promoting cheese consumption in response to the economic needs of one section of its electorate (the farmers) at the expense of  the health of consumers (everybody else - actually farmers included...)

Here we have the private market at its best and in full action: unbridled competition leading to increased productivity (in milk) leading straight into an obesity epidemic on a national scale, and all thanks to savvy marketing! Of course, the savvy marketing is the doing of the Government...Go tell the Republicans! I would love to know whether they want to defend milk farmers and the government intervention on their behalf, or whether they believe in letting the market work it out freely, letting the demand for milk drop and the dairy farmers be damned...

Another way to look at this is to consider American milk production in the face one one billion people going hungry worldwide. Why not reverse the law and allow for milk to be processed in food aid - not powdered milk that requires the addition of water, which is a problem in many developing countries where the water is polluted or insufficient...but cheese, perhaps of the mozarella type that can withstand tropical temperatures and is more acceptable to local consumers. Or one could consider it as a food additive to complement children nutrition. I was at a World Food Programme meeting this morning, and they were talking about the importance of correct nutrition in the first thousand days in a child's life. It is absolutely essential to ensure a healthy life as an adult yet in developing countries, children under the age of two are the first victims of malnutrition.

So, instead of eating a lot of cheesy pizza, what if we started to work on preventing stunted childhood in developing countries and at the same time fought obesity in the developed world? 
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11.05.2010

IS AMERICA FOLDING UP? THE MID-TERM ELECTION SEEN FROM EUROPE

Image:Republican candidates by state maps.png
It used to be that American elections were looked at as the perfect example of democracy in action. This time around the midterm election exercise has most people in Europe baffled. And I don't mean Europeans were surprised by the results: the Republican handwriting was on the wall, and, on both sides of the Atlantic, we saw it coming.

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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