Italy celebrates150 years while the world falls apart...

Grinzane Cavour - Castle - 04 - 03.08.07Cavour's castle at Grinzane Image by mastino70 via Flickr
In the face of war waged by Qaddafi in Libya, just across the sea, at perhaps 15 or 20 minutes by military jet, Italy tried yesterday to celebrate its 150 years of unification.

Why 17 March?

Because that's the date - 17 March 1861 - when the newly assembled Italian Parliament voted to turn Italy into a monarchy with the King of Sardegna, Piedmont and Savoia, served so well by Cavour (in the role of Prime Minister since 1852) as King of Italy.

The coronation of Vittorio Emmanuele II marked the final point of Cavour's efforts to unify Italy against numerous contrary winds, not least blowing from the South with the Bourbons of Naples who viewed Giuseppe Garibaldi's famous expedition in Southern Italy as a bunch of bandits causing havoc.  Three months later, on 6 June 1861, Cavour was dead, apparently of malaria, a disease he had contracted in his youth.

The celebration comes at such a difficult time for Italy that all the hesitations, ditherings and refusals, particularly from the separatist Lega Nord party, got ample coverage in both the national and international press. The Lega sent only two of its 85 parliamentaries to participate in the official celebrations in Rome. Bolzano (the capital of South Tyrol) feeling very Austrian for the occasion, refused to participate altogether. Then, of course, Berlusconi managed to receive catcalls when he appeared in the streets.

And there was the usual bureaucratic mess: 17 March was declared a national holiday - something many felt Italy did not need in these dire recession times - and shopkeepers were told that closing shop was optional...but that they needed a permission from the Comune to do so! Result: rather than queue up at the Comune to get permission to stay open, most opted to close down.

There is one fundamental problem haunting Italy and that hasn't been resolved in 150 years: the Mezzogiorno disaster - or if you prefer a more ascetic term: the north-south divide. Southern Italy - a market of some 20 million people - is still suffering from acute under-development, with average income almost half that of the North. Recent income statistics (2007) show that Northern Italy's average per cap income was some 25% higher than the European Union average, while Southern Italy's stood more than 30% lower! That means real, acute poverty in the South.

And yet...Back in 1861, at the time of unification, Southern Italy was richer than the North. It had two central banks (out of the 5 Italy had at the time) with huge gold reserves (in Palermo and Naples). Those reserves were entirely drained out to pay for the Kingdom of Piedmont's debts caused by, inter alia, the very wars of unification.  In other words, the South was made to pay for the unification.

But it doesn't end there. Serious historians (among them famous Francesco Saverio Nitti) have calculated that the amount of gold available in the South at the time added up to the formidable figure of 443 million of gold Lire on a grand total of 664 million for the whole of Italy. In other words, some 70 percent of the country's wealth was in the South at the time of unification. Today, the proportions are reversed. The historian Dennis Mack Smith reports in his remarkable book, Modern Italy A Political History (1997 - U. of Michigan Press), that a tax study published in 1910 found that Northern Italy at the time had 48 % of the nation's wealth and paid 40% of the nation's taxes, while the South with 27% of the wealth paid a whopping 32% of the nation's taxes. So the depredation was on-going still, some fifty years after the so-called "unification". Talk of fiscal justice...

Are you surprised? I must confess I am not (being married to a Sicilian, I am well aware of how Southern Italians harbour this burning feeling of having been depredated). But the facts are incontrovertible. The Northern Italians acted in the South as conquerors, not as "unifiers". And when I use that word "unifier", I mean people who try their best to merge a country's different regions and create a national identity. The conquering Northern Italians never attempted to unify the country economically, the way Western Germany has just done with its Eastern part, transferring funds, supporting education, opening up jobs etc. Sure, the merger hasn't been perfect, there have been hiccups, and Eastern Germany still has to catch up with Western Germany. But most of the job is done. In Italy the job hasn't been started - not really: it is sufficient to see there are no solid results from the (now defunct) Cassa per il Mezzogiorno and all the other half-baked attempts that have followed.

But now the situation has become truly dire: the Lega wants "federalism" at all costs, which means the transfer of tax returns from Rome (the centralized government) to the regions and comunes. At first glance, decentralized taxation may even sound good: every region gets to keep its own money and do with it what it wants. The North will no longer see its money go to the South. That means however one thing:  prodded by the Lega (and Berlusconi who doesn't care about the South - all he sees is that the Lega is the one political ally he still has), the North will never pay back for the historic depredation of the South, when it acted as a winner-take-all, carrying all the gold home and never turning back to try and rebuild what it had brought down...So Italy's "unification", after 150 years, is still a far goal, and receding fast into the distance...

Then, to all this mess, add the fact that Libya is a major supplier of oil and gas to Italy, and you get quite an infernal brew. Little to be happy about...

Still, let's hope Italy, with its proverbial know-how, optimism and arte di arrangiarsi will solve its problems and live another happy, spensierati 150 years!

I really wish that with all my heart: it's such a beautiful country, the cradle (or at least one of the major cradles) of our civilization, and I'm very happy to live here. It would be so nice to see Italy pull itself and become finally One!
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Check this surprising and illuminating video that puts traditional economic theory on its head. We are not solely guided by the profit motive and that's really encouraging, considering all the ghastly and stupid things that we are seeing happening around us in the world...


Nuclear Catastrophy in Japan and Massacre in Libya!

Image of a nuclear explosionImage via Wikipedia
In Japan, experts knew back in the 1970s that the design of the Japanese nuclear reactors was faulty - in the sense of WEAK, i.e. prone to explode in case of emergencies! See Tom Zeller's article in the New York Times.

In Libya, Qaddafi announces he is going to retake Benghazi, the rebels' stronghold in Cirenaica within the next 48 hours...while the international community is paralyzed - in particular the Americans who should be democracy's champions...

What is the world coming to???
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Japan's Nuclear Emergency

Internationally recognized symbol.Image via Wikipedia
Japan, after the earthquake and the tsunami, is now facing the threat of nuclear devastation. It seems so unreal and unfair and tragic, particularly for a country like Japan that has suffered through Hiroshima and Nagasaki! As I write it is still too soon to tell how it will turn out and we all fervently hope that the several nuclear reactors can be put under control and tragedy averted.

So much has been written about Japan over the last four days since the earthquake that I have nothing new to add. As you know, I always post after events have finished unfolding so that it becomes possible to step back and take stock. For the Japanese nuclear nightmare, it is still too soon to do that.

But news are worrying, including the Japanese officially requesting American help. So I just thought I'd put together for you what in my (humble) opinion are a few of the better articles and analysis written about this tragedy.

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No-Fly Zone over Lybia? No consensus among the G-8!

The leader de facto of Libya, Muammar al-Gaddafi.Image via Wikipedia

Check out this excellent analysis put out by The Economist online. The G-8 meeting in Paris (14 March) has given no results, as Russia stays stuck on its position of refusal and Americans (and Canadians) continue to show skepticism, even though the Arab League has called for the imposition of a no-fly zone...

A real disappointment for Juppé, the French Foreign Affairs Minister who hosted the meeting. 

Meanwhile no UN resolution has come out of the United Nations Security Council and the rebels are about to fall to Qaddafi's advancing mercenary army.

What will it take to get the international community moving??


Can the colonel be stopped?

Mar 14th 2011, 17:19 by X.S. | CAIRO

CALLS for a no-fly zone over Libya are becoming much stronger, now that the Arab League has "unanimously" backed the idea (though in reality Algeria, Sudan and Syria, all repressive and undemocratic regimes, were unhappy about it). At an earlier meeting last week, the six-country Gulf Co-operation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) was even keener to get rid of Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, who has insulted a number of its rulers over the years.
Though the African Union elected Colonel Qaddafi its year-long chairman in 2009, it will probably blow with the wind.
Once these bodies have all thrown their weight behind the idea, enough "cover" should have been given to Western governments, in particular the United States, to let them persuade the 15-member UN Security Council to pass a resolution putting the idea rapidly into effect. The Americans were at first plainly warier than Britain and France, after their difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Brazil and India were initially hostile to the idea, but will probably follow the Arab League's example. China may abstain, but Russia is likely to take most persuading. The American vice-president, Joe Biden, has been in Moscow to discuss a "reset" in relations between the two cold-war adversaries. A bargain may be struck.
If the Security Council does pass a no-fly resolution, it will probably be for NATO to enforce the policy, using bases in southern Italy and the British sovereign base at Akrotiri in Cyprus. Aircraft-carriers would not be essential.
Among NATO governments, Turkey was initially hostile to a no-fly-zone proposal. If it sticks to this view, it would be difficult for NATO to participate as an organisation, in which case a coalition of the willing could be formed, provided the Arab countries were strongly on-side. At a public forum in Qatar on March 13th, the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, studiously avoided specifically mentioning Libya. But Turkey might swing behind the idea if Arab countries in the region press it to do so.
It is debateable whether a no-fly zone would require a sustained campaign to bomb Colonel Qaddafi’s airfields and assets at the outset. It could be that his most dangerous defensive weapons, surface-to-air missiles, of which he is said to have a large and modern arsenal, would have to be knocked out by NATO (mainly American) missiles. Robert Gates, the American defence secretary, has sounded reluctant to authorise such operations. But other American generals have been more sanguine. Some say it would not be necessary to launch a bombing attack at all; the Libyan colonel would know it would be suicidal to send his aircraft into the air, once the UN resolution were passed.
Those who argue against the no-fly zone point out that so far the civil war has been entirely conducted on the ground and that the no-fly zone would make little difference. This is not quite true. The colonel has bombed assets such as oil refineries under the rebels' control. It is unclear whether his other key weapon, Russian helicopter gunships, would be forbidden to fly as well as his fixed-wing aircraft. There is no reason why this should not be made clear.
Moreover, the rebels would receive a big psychological fillip if they knew they and the buildings and assets under their control were safe from air attack.
The real key to the rebels' success would be the co-operation of the new Egyptian government, which is still tied closely to the Egyptian armed forces, which in turn may be understandably keen to conduct themselves modestly during the transition to democracy. But Amr Moussa, the Egyptian former foreign minister who heads the Arab League and has declared himself a candidate for the Egyptian presidency, is outspokenly keen to enforce a no-fly zone—and to topple the Libyan dictator.
Indeed, Colonel Qaddafi incurs hostility across the Arab world. He has few friends anywhere, except among some of the African dictators who have survived partly because of his largesse, sometimes in the guise of free oil. Hugo Chavez is also likely to stick up for him, and may even offer him a safe haven, should the colonel decide not to go down in flames at home.
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Libya: Too Late, Too Little for the Rebels?

This has been a hectic week for Libya. On Thursday, the French government recognized Libya's rebels and said it would send an ambassador to Benghazi. The UK was expected to follow suit shortly and, although Italy had at first declared such a move "premature", by Friday evening all the EU governments had agreed to "officially talk" to the opposition National Council and ask Gaddafi to step down. 

What about the US? 

Nothing so far. This may well be the first time since the Middle East crisis started that the Americans are moving after the Europeans. On Tunisia and Egypt the Americans were much faster in reacting to the uprisings - the "Arab spring revolution", as some like to call it. Why the delay on Libya? Perhaps because the US has already bombed Muammar al-Gaddafi's Libya once, back in 1986. Presumably Obama is leery of sending out the wrong signals. Arabs are notoriously sensitive and Gaddafi has been using every possible misleading argument in his speeches to his own people, including warning them of a return of Western colonization in Libya (!) 

Official recognition of the rebels' National Council as the legitimate representative government of Libya is about the only good news for the rebels at this time. They reportedly have lost a major oil port (Ras Lanuf) and Qaddafi forces claim they have retaken Brega. There are reports (by Al Jazeera among others, but reliable news are few) that the rebel forces are rather poor at handling weapons. They shoot up missiles and miss the incoming planes. The few military that have abandoned Gaddafi are apparently trying to help, but the general impression is that they are disorganized.  There are even some reports that they could suffer oil shortages within one week, which would seriously disrupt military activities.

Meanwhile, Gaddafi has shown that his planes can strike at pleasure and he is said to have billions stashed away, perhaps as much as 30 billions, which means he can pay as many mercenaries as he needs. It is said that he is paying them $1,000 a day. If this is true (as it is likely to be given Gaddafi's diffident nature: he's not about to trust anybody),then the purpose of the UN sanctions calling for the freezing of his assets is largely defeated.

As to the no-fly zone over Libya which would at least stop Gaddafi from bombing his own people, America  continues to hum an haw. Robert M.Gates thinks it's too much to ask for in military terms, too big an area to cover. With Hillary Clinton's (somewhat hesitant) support,  America is slowly coming around, but it clearly won't get involved unless there is a  United Nations Security Council resolution calling for it. France and Britain are said to work on one, and Italy has apparently joined in, but we still have to see a resolution emerge. Ideally, the Arab League and the African Union - both directly geo-politically concerned with Libya - should get into the act. 

One thing is certain: Russia is against military intervention. This should come as no surprise: Russia has always steadfastly stood by the principle of non-intervention in domestic affairs, if for no other reason that it doesn't want anyone to meddle into its own Caucasus problems. Moreover, the situation in Libya is turning to Russia's advantage. It can now rightfully say to Europeans: see, we are a stable, trustworthy country, get your energy from us! Bottomline, Russia is the main (and perhaps the only) winner in this bloody "civil war" in Libya, to use Geddafi's term - but to the rebels, remember, it is a fight for freedom after 42 years of tyrannical oppression... 

The rebels hope for official recognition from all Western governments, but what about Arab countries? And what about Italy (Libya's former colonial ruler)? Why are they so timid? Of course, Egypt and Tunisia are next door neighbours and Italy is not far, and they are all three struggling with waves of refugees...Gaddafi, in his usual hyperbolic style, has warned that "millions" would swarm over Europe - so far they're coming in at the tune of 250 to 1000 a day in Lampedusa. Perhaps, by the end of the crisis, they'll be 100,000 as the Italians fear, but not much more than that.

The Italians in particular are those with the greatest economic interests in Libya. No wonder Italian Foreign Affairs Minister Frattini has declared that it was "premature" to recognize the rebels. He did add however that Italy would re-open its consulate in Benghazi that had been closed in 2006, following anti-Italian riots. Italy's ENI is the biggest operator in Libya and  buys up to 70% of Libyan oil. And while Libyans do not hold controlling interests in some of the major Italian companies and banks, like Unicredit or Finmecanica, they are nevertheless major shareholders. Including in some companies that belong to Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. Believe me, here is a man far more worried about Gaddafi than about his legal problems with Ruby Rubacuore (heart-stealer), the Moroccan sex bomb, the one who recently shook up the annual Vienna Opera Ball, the high point of the ball season in Austria, explaining to reporters that she couldn't waltz, but could "only belly dance". 

Gaddafi is no belly dancer, he is a madman.  Did you notice how his mustache looks just like Hitler's? When I did the drawing for this post (see top), I realized what a profoundly sick and emotionally disturbed man he really is. I drew him from a video interview he gave this week on the TV channel France 24, stopping the images on occasion to pencil in a detail. I am convinced he has a split personality. His eyebrows have an unexpectedly soft arc, belied by the eyes that spit out venom through slits and the thin mouth, curved down in permanent disdain. Consider how far he has moved away from what he was (and looked like) when he carried out his coup and ousted the King - a dashing and smart-looking young colonel in uniform. Now he's into his funky desert man garb, trying hard to fit into the image of a "loving patriarch beloved by his people". The trouble is his face: it betrays him. It has the Ugliness of the Beast...And he's a dreadful actor. I watched him all through the 80 minutes of his first speech on Libyan television when the uprising started. He stood at the window of a building bombed out by the Americans in 1986 and maintained as such, in tatters, as a monument to remind the Libyan people of what the Americans can do. A clever setting, if only a little too obvious. And the way he talked, going on and on, waving a book that many thought was his famous Green book but wasn't, and then stopping sometimes for as much as a full minute, without apparently realizing he has stopped talking - or perhaps he just didn't care. Weird!

Unfortunately, the way it looks now, Gaddafi could cling on to power for a long time yet. Because of the rebels' military weakness, it is highly unlikely they'll manage to take the Western part of the country and the capital Tripoli. They'll be lucky if they maintain control over the eastern part (which has most of the oil - at least, that's something for them). But if Gaddafi manages to bomb out their cities, then the uprising could come to an early end - like so many other uprisings that haven't made it in recent years. Which probably explains everybody's shyness. As usual, no one wants to be caught on the wrong side of the fence should Gaddafi make a comeback.

What baffles me, is why the international community can't agree on a simple thing: a no-fly zone over the eastern part of the country. Just to protect Benghazi and the other rebel-held cities from Geddafi's murderous bombings. Come on Mr. Gates, that wouldn't be so hard to do: it's just a coastal strip to protect, no need for a huge military intervention to cover the whole country!

Doesn't anyone want to save the poor Libyans who yearn for freedom?

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Blogging: easy? No. Fun? Yeeees!

Heather ArmstrongHeather Armstrong Queen of the Mother BloggersImage via Wikipedia
Not everybody can be Heather Armstrong, Queen of the Mother Bloggers. Let's face it, Armstrong  is an exception. Forbes rates her as the 26th most powerful woman in the United States after Oprah and right behind famed Daily Beast Newsweek manager Tina Brown. Armstrong makes a ton of money with her reported 100,000 visitors to her site, dooce.com, every day. Actually her husband quit his job to help out in the management of what became in the course of ten short, hectic years a real booming business. And all of this, of course, while remaining an at home mother with two kids and a dog.

How did she do it? Bottomline, she found an audience eager to follow her life trials and tribulations: readership jumped when she shared her post-partum depression.  Then she went on sharing all the troubles and challenges of an at-home mother, finding a huge audience. I guess we are all voyeurs...

Then she did a very clever thing: she turned the blog into a fantastic money-making proposition. That aspect of her adventure as a blogger may have been hard to manage at times but in the end, it came naturally, given the prevalent marketing/advertising culture in America. I'm not so sure the equivalent can be reproduced in a European environment.

More interesting is the question of why her blog has attracted such a huge following? Good writing, of course. She has a catchy voice, she makes you feel she's right in the room with you: it must be the way she actually talks to her hubby and friends. As I've said before: all of us harbour a little bit of a voyeur in ourselves.

Then there's the next important thing: in her posts, she tries to bring up a piece of information. Whether it concerns a washing machine or an experience with her child or dog, it's always something "new" or at least something you can learn from. Or nearly always:  when she doesn't, her captive audience can forgive her that. Because she's done it often enough in the past so that she's built up a faithful following.

So, if I may, draw the conclusions from Heather Armstrong's experience.  A major element in a successful blog is surely the ability to add a new dimension to whatever is said anywhere else in the printed press or other websites. You've got to make the reader feel he/she's not wasting her time with you - either because s/he's learned something from you or because s/he's laughed at something along with you. Some bloggers try to make you cry along with them. Personally, I don't think that's a very good idea, but I can readily understand that people who have suffered a death in the family or gone through a traumatizing illness will flock to sites and blogs that offer compassion and consolation.

So there are all sorts of areas one can blog in, from parenting to health care, from cooking to religion. But in every case, to succeed you need a special slant. Otherwise you won't catch anybody's attention, much less maintain it.

The rest - like pictures and links to related articles - is largely make-up. It makes your blog look better and Zemanta is probably the best tool for that. But the substance is still yours and yours alone.

And this is where I have doubts and questions. Bloggers appear to decide early on what the profile of their blog should be (say, it is focussed on all things literary, or political, or economic or whatever area of life strikes your fancy). And then they resolutely stick to it. They never talk about something else - never deviate from their main line of argument. These guys are focussed and determined to build up their "brand". And quite rightly they join a community of bloggers or like-minded writers and comment on each other's blog and site. Because, as Jeremy Myers points out in his excellent post (see link below), commenting on other people's blogs and responding to comments on your own blog is the "blood" that drives traffic to your blog (if I may be allowed the simile).

I suspect they're right to do that, but I don't like it. All sorts of things interest me, and I like to hop like a busy bee from one to the next. Why stop with one series of arguments? How boring! My blog is my own to do what I like with. No editorial policy here. Nothing but utter intellectual freedom!

I've tried to "clean up" my blog, sticking  my short stories and cooking recipes in linked blogs (see the right hand side).  I did that because someone (rightly) told me that stuff was too different from the rest and got lost in what I guess is a mish mash of economics, politics, art and sheer pig-headed opinions... As to commenting on other websites and blogs, I do as much as I can, but being so widely spread out, I fear I don't do a very good job of it. I'd need a 48 hour day to do justice to all the great stuff that's written out there!

So the way I go about it is probably not the best way to build up a brand.

Am I wrong? Should I give up all my flitting about and concentrate on one thing and one thing only? As a fiction writer, I find that nearly impossible to envisage: everything human interests me continually...What do you think I should do? Keep at it the way my blog is now, exploring ideas and events left and right, or stick doggedly to one single path?

Do tell me!


Can the Right Diet Make You Live Longer?

Nude artNude ArtImage via WikipediaWe all suspect when we're hitting that wine bottle and getting stuffed on fried chicken and chocolate cookies that we're going to die young. And dozens of medical gurus have told us what is the right diet to keep healthy: eat lots of fruits and vegetables, stay away from fatty and fried foods, cut down on meat and cheese, go for fish and wholewheat bread. And above all, cut your addiction to sugar, stay slim and exercise regularly...

Like that nude girl, what we need is NUDE FOOD (no fats, no sauces, no extras of any kind)!

Fine. But will that make us live longer? There's one guy out there in America who believes it will. His name is David Murdock, he's 87 now and plans on living until he's 125. And he's put his considerable fortune at work for him - Forbes' magazine ranks him as America's 130th richest man - : he's invested in a $500 million food research centre in North Carolina, next to one of his five homes. Food journalist Frank Bruni has a juicy article about him in this Sunday's  New York Times magazine (see article below or click this link). Of course, coming from Frank Bruni that was to be expected. Check out the "healthy egg nogg" recipes he's asked three New York bartenders to mix for him, although I doubt any of the suggested recipes would win Mr. Murdock's approval.

Murdock's North Carolina Research Campus, as Bruni puts it, is "dedicated to his conviction that plants, eaten in copious quantities and the right variety, hold the promise of optimal health and maximal life span." Murdock has a team of doctors working hard and using all kinds of advanced MRI equipment to study the molecular structure of food - like blueberries, to figure out what there is exactly in a blueberry that's supposed to be good for you. 

All this is laudable and there's probably a great deal of truth in all this, but not everyone agrees with Murdock's quest or thinks that it will enable him to live longer.  There just may be a genetic limit to longevity, and no doubt it varies from one person to the next.

But genetic considerations cannot defeat the idea that diet influences how well and how long one lives.

There are the macrobiotic diet die-hards, who combine meditation and slowing down their life style with eliminating all dairy products, meats, and fatty foods from their diet.

There are those who go for high-fiber diets and splurge on raspberries, lentils, peas and barley and oat bran, all foods that are said to be packed with fiber.

There are those who maniacally cut sugar out of everything and replace with artificial sweeteners. When told that diet soda could increase the risk of stroke by 50 percent, they try not to listen and hope new studies will come up with different conclusions. 

Then there are those (like me) who are great believers in the anti-oxydent virtues of omega-3 found in all sorts of food from halibut to linseed or flaxseed oil. Since I don't like halibut, I stick to flaxseed oil which is a lot less intrusive. You can even get it in the form of pills and pop them in, but I prefer the liquid oil I can see (I never quite trust pills and what's in them). Flaxseed oil is great: it helps maintain the digestive tract in good order, it provides the needed element to keep your skin young and your hair shiny. I have a spoonful of flaxseed oil every morning stirred into my (low fat, of course!) yoghurt mixed with Bircher Muesli and brown cane sugar (what else? Never eat white sugar!)

But I'm not going to try and convince you. We all know that nutrition is awash with medical studies and findings that regularly contradict each other.

Instead, I'd like to draw your attention to a very interesting study recently carried out by the University of Maryland that modestly tried to find out whether what older people eat makes any difference in their chances at longevity. Study researcher Amy Anderson and her colleagues examined the eating habits and quality of life of about 2,500 adults, ages 70 to 79, from two American towns (Pittsburgh and Memphis, Tenn). 

One of the study's main conclusions is that older adults who ate mainly healthy foods — such as vegetables, fruit, poultry, low-fat dairy products and whole grains — had a lower risk of death over a 10-year period than those who ate less-healthy foods, including high-fat dairy products. Thus, this study (along with other previous studies) support the idea that older adults can indeed affect their health and longevity by following a dietary pattern that is high in healthy foods.What was interesting was the finding that some people who indulged in alcohol and meat still managed to live longer because they apparently compensated with a higher intake of vegetables and fruits. Which makes sense.

The upshot of all this? Don't believe too much what anyone tells you and use your common sense. If you've "broken down" and had a heavy meal, don't worry, just go light the next few days. Try not to turn obese and exercise as much as you feel like and are comfortable with.

Because even a bout of daily jogging should be carried out within reason: (a) in a clean-air environment (and not along a heavily trafficked road like I've seen so many joggers do!); and (b) not so long and so hard that you look ready for the morgue!

So, I guess, the only real guide to health and long life at all stages in life is...nude food!


Turmoil in the Middle East: Will it Change American Foreign Policy ?

War in the Middle EastImage by Stewf via Flickr
Article first published as How Turmoil in the Middle East Might Change American Foreign Policy on Blogcritics.

America has to rethink its diplomacy in the Middle East. The revolution that started softly in a minor country - Tunisia - has now overtaken Egypt, a behemoth in the Arab world, and threatens to spread like wildfire to the whole region: Lybia, Yemen, Bahrein, Oman, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Iraq, Iran and even beyond the region, as far out as China (where a so-called "Jasmine revolution" was immediately quelched)!

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this tsunami is that it hasn't yet hit other dictatorial regimes as strong as Mubarak's Egypt, like Saudi Arabia or Syria.  It may come there too, but for the moment, the attention of the international community is trained on Lybia. And no wonder. So far, it's the only country that has experienced a bloodshed that looks almost like a civil war, while Qaddafi shoots on his own people.  

Israel is understandably worried about losing its allies in the region and, overall, it is keeping mum while everybody else is speaking up.  Israel had signed a peace treaty with Egypt and another with Jordan, and for the last three decades, it has felt relatively safe. Now that Mubarak is gone and Egypt is in transition towards a new government, all the options are open. Including a rejection of the treaty, as a majority of Egyptians appears not to like it.

What about the US? Obama, in line with America's vision of itself as the champion of democracy, has come out very clearly on the side of the protesters, as has Europe. With regard to the bloodshed in Lybia, there has been near-universal condemnation, with the notable exception of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador who have sided with Qaddafi. So far, the UN estimates more than 1,000 have died and 100,000 have fled the country. As might be expected, this has led to cries for sanctions - the UN Security Council responded fast with a resolution slamming sanctions on Qaddafi and his family: freezing of assets, interdiction to travel, arms sales embargo, and perhaps what is more important, opening the way to refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC) charging him with crimes against humanity.

Some, like Senator John McCain even want military intervention though that's unlikely. The internal situation in Lybia would have to degenerate a great deal more to justify an intervention. Why? Because the international system - the United Nations - is firmly based on a principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of  member countries. If you jump into Lybia because you think unspeakable wrong is done to innocent people, you may be morally right but countries like China or Russia will not appreciate (for obvious reasons). Nor support you.

Actually in Lybia there is a good chance the country will break in two: the eastern part, with Benghazi and 80 percent of Lybia's oil  in the hands of the rebels and an increasingly smaller western part with Tripoli, where local tribes are loyal to Qaddafi. Unless, of course, the rebels assault Tripoli and manage to conquer the whole country.

So is it right for the United States to pursue sanctions against Lybia and, generally speaking, bang the table in favour of democracy protests? Surely this attitude is not to the taste of Saudi Arabia that remains the main oil player with 12% of world production. The Saudi don't like what is happening in Bahrein either: first, it is happening on their doorstep, and second they don't want the Sunni monarchy there to lose out to the Shia majority - and in any case, it is a tiny country, some1.2 million people...

It would seem that democratic change won't go either very far or very fast. Leaders have been toppled in Tunisia and Egypt, but that's only the first step. To actually bring about real democracy is a long, complex process. As to other places, like Lybia where credible opposition leaders have yet to emerge, it is difficult to imagine what could happen next.

So can one expect a sea change in American policy in response to so-called Arab revolutions?

I don't think so. Obama seems to have played his cards well so far. But he is treading a mine field. He can only come on the side of street protesters whenever it becomes clear that the leaders they try to topple are threats to democracy - like in Tunisia and Egypt. There are however a number of countries where the situation is not that clear, for example in Yemen where considerable pro-government manifestations have taken place in response to the protests (but the situation could change there too if the government continues to lose support). In such cases, American reaction has to be more subdued. Then there's a series of manifestations that are not real calls for a regime change but  only protests against specific conditions, like unemployment, poverty and disgust towards the corruption of the ruling elite, as  in Iraq and Oman. Furthermore, it is not in the American interest to go against oil giants like Saudi Arabia that have been long-standing allies in the region.

One thing is certain: these are not revolutions inspired by Al Qaeda-type violence or religion. They are classic middle class revolutions, led by the "facebook generation", young, savvy people with often a higher education and little prospect for a good job once out of the university.

How far on the road to democracy will the Arab revolutions go? It is obviously a very complex process. Arabs all look to the "Turkish model", a largely islamic country that has "made it", successfully combining democracy and capitalism with a moderate, liberal version of Islam. But it took 60 years for Turkey to get there, and its starting point under the iron guidance of Ataturk was somewhat different: it was a military, secular republic.

Can the Turkish model be replicated? Probably. What can America and Europe do to help? Provide technical support and guidance to develop democratic state structures and give aid to alleviate poverty and create jobs.

Easier said than done, and in any case, it can't be done if the countries in question do not request help...

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Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! But there are sanctions and sanctions

Protest March (oil painting by Claude)
Obama's first move was to call Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey while French President Sarkozy was there on a visit, and tell them he wanted sanctions. Of course, they both agreed. The very next day, the United Nations Security Council produced a sanctions resolution backed by just about every member country, probably a first in the annals of United Nations history.

On February 24, the minute all those Americans who wanted to leave Libya had safely escaped, President Obama bandied about sanctions. That's the favourite threat used by our political class on both sides of the Atlantic whenever war is out of the question.

One can only applaud the international community for its reaction to the bloodshed in Libya. Anyone who's followed the unfolding of the tragedy on Al Jazeera, as I have, will have seen Colonel Muammar al Qaddafi at his worst on Tuesday, February 22 in a raving 80 minute speech, threatening death to his own people. There can be no doubt the man is bloodthirsty, out of touch with reality and out of his mind.

No one wants to invade Libya to restore peace or save lives, so sanctions are the answer.  Okay, I can live with that. But there are sanctions and sanctions: only those that directly hit Qaddafi should be used; meaning a freeze on his assets, an interdiction to travel, bringing him to trial for crimes against humanity, a ban on arms sales to Libya. All of that is fine, but not a trade embargo that would only hurt the man in the street and leave Qaddafi unharmed.

It would seem the UN is going in that direction. For the sake of the poor Libyan people, I hope it keeps going that way...

Article first published as Sanctions on Lybia? Yes! on Blogcritics.

PS: In case you're wondering about the image on this post, it's an oil painting I did a couple of years ago: I intended it to be emblematic of protest marches, with a kid waving madly while riding on his father's shoulders. I've always been struck how people take their own children along when they descend in the streets, whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Lybia or elsewhere (this particular painting was inspired by a march in Afghanistan). 
I have never been able to figure out whether this is very brave of them or irresponsible. I know I probably wouldn't dare to take my kids to march out!

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Lybia Breaks Down and Oil Prices are Up: Is That Unavoidable?

02_19_2011_DC Libyan Protest032.jpgLybian Protester, Feb 19, 2011 Image by messay.com via Flickr
Lybia is breaking down. According to some reports Muammar al-Gaddafi is hidden in a bunker in Tripoli and has unleashed mercenaries to try and regain control of his country. For the moment, no one knows how it will all end but one thing is certain: oil prices are spiking, pushed up by the usual culprits: speculators.

When will we get rid of speculators? The reaction in oil prices is idiotic. Lybia furnishes about 2% of world oil supplies and most of this to Italy that can easily switch to other sources. Plus, European governments all have emergency stocks for at least 3 months. Plus Saudi Arabia, which already accounts for some 12 percent of world supplies, can easily increase production at the drop of a hat because it has plenty of unused capacity.

Plus the pernicious view that Lybian-like turmoil will spread like fire to the rest of the Arab oil suppliers. I believe it's way over the top.

Sure, there are problems in Bahrein, but nowhere near the kind that has developed in Lybia. The democratic wave launched by the "facebook generation" - call it a tsunami - is threatening every dictatorship in the Arab world, but how it will play out is likely to be highly variable. In Egypt and Tunisia, we've seen relatively "soft" scenarios, with limited loss of innocent human lives. Why? Because the army was capable of maintaining order. Bahrein and Yemen, if handled well by their leadership, could play out equally "softly".

So far, Lybia is the only country that has descended into civil war. When Gaddafi's son, Saif al Islam, threatened las Monday that it would, I was surprised. Civil war? Of course, he meant tribal war. All around Tripoli are the tribes sustaining Gaddafi, whereas around Benghazi where the revolt started, are those tribes Gaddafi  never trusted. They have hated him for the past 42 years of his rule. As a result, the "Leader of the Revolution", as he likes to term himself, has never been able to develop a homogeneous, trustworthy national army and now there is none. None to maintain order and no one able to lead the opposition. For the moment, it looks like utter chaos. And there is only a trickle of news as Internet and normal news channels have been snuffed out by the regime. Indeed, Lybia may be quite different from Egypt and Tunisia: it certainly does not look like the result of "facebook generation" activism. Of course, it is too early to judge, but my guess is that we are seeing here tribal revolts.

If Lybia is such a special case, why the reaction in oil prices? Why can't the speculators be reigned in? In this particular case, I think there would be an easy way to fight them - and without resorting to the complex mechanism of regulation, always so difficult to put in place because it requires world-wide coordination.

No, there's something much simpler that European governments - starting with Italy - could do right away, with the stroke of a pen. They could adopt a system of flexible rates on the tax they apply to oil. Did you know that when you fill up your car at a gas station, government taxes slapped on oil account for an average 80% of the price you pay? Yes, that's not a typo: the real cost of oil is only about 20% (it varies somewhat from country to country, but that's the general range).

So why not adjust the tax so that price spikes in oil are absorbed? This way, one could avoid the detrimental  knock-on effects on the price of commodities and all traded goods, and snuff out inflation at its source. Naturally, governments would take in a little less money for a little while. But probably not for long (until the Lybian situation stabilizes). And the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantage: if there is no shock to the economy, there will not be the usual slowdown in economic activity which pulls down tax revenues. On the contrary,  taxes will continue to flow into treasury coffers at an unabated rate...

But, such a measure is probably too clever for our politicians. I don't know what's the problem: Is is laziness? Lack of imagination? Poor management?  What do you think?

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Dude, Where's my Europe? Why is the EU the Last to Speak on Tunisia, Egypt and now Lybia?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland, British politicianBaroness Ashton (British politician) at her bestImage via Wikipedia
What is the EU doing on the international scene? Why does it always speak last, after the US and the UK, and France, and Germany and a score of other European countries?  Why is everyone commenting on the Tunisian, Egyptian and now Lybian revolution and the EU keeps mum or barely mutters? Why is Europe such a pigmy in foreign affairs?

What's the matter with Lady Ashton, the new European Foreign Affairs Minister? Why won't she speak up? Why doesn't she travel? She was supposed to go to post-Ben Ali Tunisia and everyone got there before she did, starting with the Americans. And post-Mubarak Egypt? Same thing. She's travelling there on February 22nd but that won't make her the first: Cameron got there before. He shook hands with the military leadership - Defense Minister Mohamed  Tantawi and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq - then met some of the organizers of the Tahrir Square protest but - and that was stupid - refused to meet anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood. Naturally the latter were of no interest to him: among other things, he happened to be in Egypt to promote British business interests, including the sales of weapons...

When will our politicians ever learn that DIALOGUE is the basis for international peace and understanding?

Repression is not the answer, as Lybia's Gaddafi is discovering these days. On 22 February, he gave a despicable performance on Lybian television, theatrically standing in a bombed out building, alongside a metal monument showing a gigantic hand crunching an American fighter plane. That building was bombed out by the Americans in 1986, and presumably he hasn't repaired it in order to turn it into some sort of testimonial against the West. Wearing a brown desert outfit and looking appropriately somber, he ranted and raved for a full 80 minutes, threatening his own people with death, brandishing about an unidentified green book (no, it wasn't his green book but some earlier Lybian code of laws calling for the death penalty) and invoking the example of Tienanmen. I'm not sure the Chinese appreciated... Moreover he had the gall to pretend he hadn't yet ordered anyone to shoot protesters but warned that he would - and to think that so far, since the turmoil started, at least 250 people have been killed and according to some reports, much more, up to a thousand. Here is a man with blood on his hands who is truly out of touch with reality!

At this point in time, nobody knows how it will turn out, whether Lybia will descend into civil war and he will be ousted, but surely strong condemnation from the international community is called for. Within hours of his speech, condemnation punctually arrived from the United Nations Security Council and from the Arab League. Lady Ashton spoke afterwards to the BBC  from Cairo but didn't add anything to the statement prepared for her the day before in Brussels by the 27 foreign affairs ministers of the EU.

Naturally the 27 ministers in question had a hard time agreeing on the wording of the condemnation: at one extreme, the Finnish wanted a strong-worded condemnation and sanctions (not surprising, given the distance to Lybia) while at the other extreme the Italian called for restraint (even less surprising considering the proximity of Lybia). Indeed, Italy has much at stake and much to worry about: huge Italian investments in Lybia and vice-versa, thousands of nationals trapped in Lybia, not to mention that 27 percent of its oil is exported to Italy, plus the possibility of an exodus of "biblical proportions" of Lybian refugees: Mr. Frattini, the Italian Foreign Affairs Minister, evoked the possibility of 2 to 300,000 Lybians arriving in Italy. Add to this mix the French embarrassment about its own Foreign Affairs Minister (mis)behaviour in Tunisia  - she had offered Ben Ali help to control the protest, travelled in the private plane of a Ben Ali friend during her year-end holiday while her parents were signing the purchase of a hotel in Tabarka, the famous Tunisian resort on the north coast. Result: a much delayed and weak statement. 

Poor Lady Ashton! Institutionally, she cannot speak before getting the green light from 27 European ministers. No wonder she is mum and doesn't travel!

I'm truly, totally pissed off. I've always believed in a United Europe, I've always felt that was the way forward to put behind us, once and for all, the wars and injustices that have lacerated Europe for the past 2000 years - and especially in the past century. We were supposed to have new, stronger European institutions with a newly created Foreign Affairs super-ministry and an EU President. It was all getting installed in 2010 and we were told to be patient, that the new super-partes institutions would take some time before becoming fully operational.

Okay, we've waited over a year. That should be about long enough to start having results. Instead, what have we got?

Nothing. The EU President -  Herman Van Rompuy, a Belgian politician and a clever economist and negotiator - is remarkably low key. Every six months, we hear a lot about the new country whose turn it is to preside over the Union (now it's Hungary) and never hear about him - though he tries hard to call for "EU summit" meetings...On the other hand, he's another one who hasn't hesitated to walk on Lady Ashton's territory: he's just set up his own foreign policy unit in his office.

That does seem rather unnecessary, doesn't it, when Lady Ashton is supposed to put together a 7,000 diplomat force together? And, by the way, why so many? And why didn't she start with the beginning, i.e. develop a policy framework, so she would be guided by general policy principles regarding all the likely areas of EU international relations: Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, Turkey, the Israel question, China, India, Japan, Brazil, not to mention the US etc? Really, those areas are well known in advance - no need to wait for a crisis to arise -, and consulting her 27 Foreign Affairs Ministers over the past 365 days (especially at a lower, technical level), she and her team should have been able  to discover common threads and space for her to move in.

Did she do this? I doubt it. I even suspect the worst: that our political leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy foremost among them, were more than happy to select a non-entity as the first European Foreign Affairs Minister. Probably the only dissenter was Berlusconi, given his liking for pretty women...But in the end, they could all agree on Lady Ashton since nobody likes to be overshadowed by someone brilliant, particularly not a politician...

I am really disappointed and very, very angry. What about you? Do let me know... 

PS. In case you were wondering about the title to this post, Michael Moore's fans will have recognized it: it's a take on his bestseller entitled Dude, where's my country?

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Berlusconi? Ridicule!

Silvio BerlusconiImage by rogimmi via Flickr
Berlusconi is not afraid of ridicule, no doubt about it. In spite of his age (he is 74 years old), he regularly throws "bunga-bunga" parties in his villa in Arcore, outside Milano, with young, uninhibited girls, belly-dancers and the like, brought to him by newscaster Emilio Fede (80 years old) and others working in his Mediaset TV empire - "fresh flesh for the dragon", as his recently separated wife once described it. Bunga-bunga apparently refers to the fact that the parties end with naked dancing and touching (and who knows what else).

When one of the sex bombs was arrested in Milan - she is known to Italians by her stage name,  "Ruby Rubacuori", Ruby the heart-stealer - he didn't hesitate to personally call the police that very night to get her released, alledging she was Mubarak's niece (which she isn't - she's Moroccan) and that a diplomatic incident needed to be avoided.

One really doesn't know what's worse: an old man pursuing teen-agers, a prime minister wasting his time in all-night orgies with vulgar, easy women, the head of government pressing police officers for the release of a nightclub dancer using lies as arguments.At this point, he is probably the most despised politician in Italy. Millions of men and women protested against him in the streets last week. Yet, he won't give up in spite of a tenuous majority in Parliament that can only be maintained with the support of the  Northern League  whose federalist agenda most Italians (i.e. everyone outside of Lombardy) find totally unacceptable. Italy is about to celebrate 150 years as a nation-state and no one, except the League, wants to hear about Italy breaking up.
No, Berlusconi is not about to resign in spite of being indicted two weeks ago on on charges that range from paying for sex with Ruby when she was 17 and under age to abuse of influence of his office - a charge that is probably more serious for him than the one regarding sex that is always difficult to prove since Ruby vehemently denies it (she doesn't deny receiving €7,000 from him). Not only he is not  resigning but he is even convinced that if elections are held, he would win again.  And I would be very surprised if he turns up on April 6 in front of the three judges who have indicted him. Incidentally, they were picked for the job by the standard lottery system and as chance would have it, they are all three women!

And so he might as there's no one else on the political scene, either on the left or the right. Politicians on the left fight among themselves, and while there might be a younger generation trying to emerge, like the young mayor of Florence,  it is probably too soon for them to make any difference yet. On the right, it's Berlusconi's party plus the Lega. Gianfranco Fini, once Berlusconi's ally, used to be a third force but he has blown his political career by fighting with Berlusconi and developing  moral problems of his own. He has abandoned his wife and lives with a much younger "companion", an ex-model, who has given him a child this summer. As if this were not enough, his companion's brother became embroiled in a financial scandal, obtaining at a suspiciously low cost a flat in Montecarlo that once belonged to Fini's party. As to the others, Casini, Di Pietro, Vendola etc, they're too small in terms of votes to make a difference.

So what is Berlusconi doing? He claims he's put his finance minister Giulio Tremonti back to work. Hopefully that's true because Tremonti is one of the few capable politicians on the Italian scene. Meanwhile, Berlusconi attends parties, the latest one with the Roman nobility. As it was only covered in the local press (the Messaggero, the Corriere della Sera and Libero), I'd like to share the high points of that evening with you.

It took place in the Circolo degli Scacchi (Chess Club), located in a lovely baroque palace near Piazza del Popolo. It is the city's second social club (the first is the Caccia). The dinner was organized by a woman of the Roman nobility, a friend of Berlusconi's, who managed the invitation with the help of a club member (this is an exclusive man's club, on the English model). Only 30 people were present and the Club's president was not invited; indeed, he learned about the party the next day reading the papers.

Why would Berlusconi suddenly attend such a party when has never roamed Roman society since he came into power over 15 years ago (presumably to protect his privacy) ? Perhaps he thought that the veneer of such a party with Roman nobles - and with women averaging 80 years of age, according to Libero - would rub off him, giving him back a semblance of dignity.

If that was the purpose, it miserably misfired. The Libero has a particularly juicy account of how the evening went - and I'd like to quote from it. It seems that when Berlusconi walked in at 9:30 pm and realized how old most of the guests were, he said "Ehhhh, what beautiful women! So tonight, we'll have some bunga-bunga!" A musician, Maestro Mariano Apicella, played his guitar and Berlusconi grabbed the microphone, belting out a string of songs in French and Neapolitan and jokes.

The Berlusconi show went this way till one o'clock in the morning, but when he tried to get the old ladies to dance a rumba, apparently they all stayed put, presumably unwilling to risk breaking a bone. They clearly preferred to enjoy the prime minister's cabaret. And he kept going: Ruby of course had nothing to do with Mubarak, he told them, she was Ramses II's niece! And do you know why princesses have blue blood? Because they make oral sex with the "principe azzurro" (Prince Charming).

Upon leaving, he called out: "auguro una buona digestione a tutti!" (I wish you all a good digestion!) and stopped for a moment with Anna Maria Bernini, much younger than all the women present and a member of his party, who reportedly was the go-between with Roman society and instigator of the evening. "E' bravissima," says Berlusconi, "presto sarà promossa sottosegretario" (soon she will be promoted as under-secretary). Yep, we all suspected that's how he packed his government with young, good-looking women!

Before he left, Berlusconi belted out one last song dedicated to Gianfranco Fini. Based on a Johnny Dorelli song entitled "Montecarlo", it has one unforgettable line in Milanese slang: "me sunt cagaa adoss a Montecarlo". As Libero put it, this is untranslatable but I'm sure you can guess what it means (and your worst guess is the right one).

It seems everyone thought that was hilarious.

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