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10.13.2011

WHY ITALY IS IN A MESS

One Baker's fight Against Italian Bureaucracy: 4 years to Move to his New Shop!

And he still isn't there! 

The building is finished, but the baker and his wife are still waiting for the "certificato di agibilità" (permission for "access"). It's taken them months to obtain the necessary  certificates and this is the last one they need from the "Comune", the village authorities before they can open their new shop - a bizarre piece of paper that is awaiting somebody's signature, but no one is there in the Comune to sign it. 

They've been waiting for a whole month now for this particular certificate, and when I went there yesterday to buy my bread, they were still waiting...

Let me show you the situation in pictures. Here's one of the several medieval towers on the outside wall that circles Mugnano, a small village of about 1,000 inhabitants in Umbria, the "green heart" of Italy:



Here's the entrance to the baker's shop:



Cute, isn't it? Wait till you see the inside:


Small but lovely, with vaulted ceilings. See the baker's wife laughing? She's always in a good mood when she sells you their goodies. They have no help - this is entirely a family business, and their daughter is studying to become a magistrate...So no one in the family is likely to continue the baking tradition - a pity, because this is one inspired and hugely talented baker and pastry chef! Judge for yourself: 



Looks yummy! And believe me, it is! 


Here's the new building on the outskirts of the village where our baker is supposed to move in. 




It's at a cross-road and therefore should bring him many more clients. In fact he's planning to expand his business and include a coffee shop and pizzeria - both activities that are impossible in the small, cramped quarters he's presently in. 

He's going to move into the left wing of this building:








In the right wing, there will be a small supermarket, and behind, in the background you can see some trees. 


Those trees hide the ruins of a 13th century Benedictine convent. That turned out to be one of the big problems encountered by the builder: because of the ruins, he had to stop his building and redesign it to make it "fit in" as per the rules and regulations of the Italian Belle Arte authorities.

Result, it took him nearly...4 years to complete the building!


Are these ruins something special? Well, you can see for yourself here:




Yes, they are nice, but they are totally abandoned and in dreadful shape.  No one is interested (or has the means) to restore them. Until some ten or fifteen years ago, they were lived in by poor peasant families.So, the last time this place was lived in by monks was a very long time ago...


Were the Italian Belle Arte wrong in imposing a "classic" style to the new building? Probably not, but surely they could have gone about it without wasting so much time. The two are not exactly next to each other, and it seems stretching it a bit to make so many demands on the builder...



I wanted to show you this baker's trials and tribulations because they illustrate perfectly why Italian businesses suffer, why innovation in an ancient country like Italy is so difficult. It is discouraged by a ghastly combination of understandable measures to defend and preserve the invaluable Italian artistic heritage with red tape, corruption and indifference. 

Reams of red tape because Italian bureaucracy has inherited laws and regulations of a vast number of rulers over the centuries, from the ancient Romans to Renaissance princes, from the Austrian and Spanish Empires to Napoleon's France and 19th century liberals.  


Then there's corruption of the direct variety (you have to "grease paws" to move things forward) and indirect variety (if you don't pay, you're left at the bottom of the pile). 

Last but not least, there's a general indifference on the part of civil servants that have conveniently forgotten they are at the service of citizens. Of course not all of them are like that, but too many are.


No wonder Italy is in such a mess!

Q4U: The intent here was to illustrate the damage to business innovation caused by the unholy combination of several factors: (1)bureaucratic red tape, (2) laxity verging on corruption and (3)  rules intended to preserve the cultural heritage. Do you see any other factors at work here?

Have you observed similar situations in the country where you live? Can you report on solutions? 

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10.12.2011

Will book publishers be able to maintain primacy as ebook publishers? | The Passive Voice's Fantastic Post!

I love this analysis that Passive Guy - or Passive Voice, I'm not sure which he prefers - has just published and I can't resist giving you the link to his post here: 
Will book publishers be able to maintain primacy as ebook publishers? | The Passive Voice:


Passive Guy argues convincingly that traditional publishers have fallen prey to the well-known shortcomings of monopolists: rigidities, slowness, lack of invention, incapacity to respond to consumer demand. Just like Microsoft, once a highly innovative company that for a while was a near-monopoly in its industry, has become slow and uninventive - stuck in a rut and no longer able to make money outside of its "cash cow", ie the Microsoft Office products.


Faced with competition from Amazon and to a lesser extent from other etailers, chief among them Barnes and Noble, traditional  book publishers - meaning the Big Six - will find it hard or even impossible to maintain their primacy as ebook publishers. That's what both the Passive Voice and the Shatzkin Files maintain, and you better listen to what they say, they're the best bloggers in this area, with illuminating analyses of changes in the publishing industry.


I would just add to everything they've said that in my opinion the single reason Amazon managed to sail ahead of traditional publishers is that IT MAINTAINS RECORDS OF ITS CUSTOMERS. 


Amazon knows what people like to buy and therefore presents them with relevant attractive choices. So they keep buying. 


Simple. 


And that's something traditional publishers can't do. Other things they can't do is run readers community clubs, forum threads of interest to readers to enhance book discovery, reader reviews, likes and tags...All internet-based tricks to enhance book discovery and accessibility.


If Michael Shatzkin is right - see his post here - and the book market is really headed for 80% of total book sales, then traditional publishers are really in...a hole!


The only way to climb out of this hole for book publishers would be to


(1) improve their search for new products (i.e. new authors and books)...Any ideas?


(2) understand better the reader market; so far, they've relied on "genres" to get an idea of how much a book might sell (romance outsells all other genres), but this is hardly an exact science! They need to run book reader surveys and find out exactly what's going on, what people like to read, what they're looking for. And perhaps, but that might be too revolutionary, work some agreement with Amazon to find out what their customers buy so that they can come up with better books more appropriate to reader demand...As a minimum they could analyze the Amazon site and find out what books "other customers have bought": in the aggregate, that would give an indication of people's tastes in books.


Any other suggestions?

10.11.2011

THE NEXT BIG DIGITAL BOOK MARKET? EUROPE!

The Frankfurt Book Fair with the fair's tower ...  Frankfurt Book Fair Image via Wikipedia
The next big market for e-books? Brazil, India, China? Wrong, it's Europe!

What is rather odd is that all the buzz at the Frankfurt Book Fair is about Brazil and India. Big markets to be sure,and countries that are part of the famous fast growing  BRIC group rocking international trade.

Incidentally, we have to leave China out of the discussion because it is essentially a closed market: they've shut out Google and set up their own Amazon-like etailer. So, although China is potentially the biggest and fastest growing, from a globalized digital book market standpoint, it doesn't count. Not yet and perhaps never.

There are really two facts to keep in mind when analyzing the global book market. One is the number of people who speak and read English. Two, is the degree of alphabetization and education.

On both, continental Europe scores very high, ahead of anyone else in the world. English, we all know, is the language that is most widely spoken around the world, but especially so in Europe. And continental Europe has far more readers than anywhere else, Brazil and India included.

Yet, the European outlook doesn't look rosy. A recent survey commissioned through Rüdiger Wischenbart Content and Consulting, provides a broad picture of emerging e-book markets across Europe, Brazil and China, taking the US and UK markets as benchmarks. Rather than using forecasts, they have examined local factors and the unique defining traits of each market — from market sizes to tax and pricing regimes to cultural choices.

They have been able to document that the breaks to market expansion in Europe include everything from a "supposed tendency" to prefer printed books to "sticky" unfavorable prices.

I'm saying a "supposed tendency" because that is always something invoked at the beginning of e-book penetration in the market - the case in Europe where it is far behind the US. According to the Rudiger survey "in 2015 in Germany, e-book penetration of between 10 and 15% of the book market is conceivable; this number is considerably lower — around 8 to 10% — for Italy or Spain ..."

And e-book prices are "sticky" in the sense that they are not open to free competition. They are constrained by a variety of factors, chief among them legislation that fixes prices for books (for example in France) and  European VAT tax that hits e-books unfairly compared to printed books because they are not considered a "product" but a "license". 

In short, the European institutional environment is not favorable to e-books. But that could change. The European Commission is aware of the VAT problem and has shown signs of a willingness to fix it. Also several  national laws that fix book prices are presently under attack. 

What is more surprising are the breaks to expansion applied by Amazon itself. In America, it has systematically adopted aggressive sales strategies that have effectively promoted and supported its market expansion, chief among them, low-cost e-readers. The Kindle Fire is but the latest example of this policy: the Kindle Fire, unlike other tablets, is very likely to prove a winner against the iPad. 

But, as pointed out by David Gaughran in his excellent analysis of the European market (to read it, click here)Amazon has adopted policies that, if anything, seem to be designed to slow down market expansion...

First, and most disappointing, there's no Kindle Fire available in Europe and it doesn't look like it's coming anytime soon. 

Second, Amazon e-readers are systematically more expensive than in the US, to the point of discouraging potential buyers. Consider this as reported by the Wall Street Journal: " There was more anger from those who went to check Amazon’s European websites. U.K. customers found a new advertisement filling the front page introducing the “all-new Kindle for only £89.00.” This is the lowest-specified model that ships for $79 in the U.S. The U.K. cost includes 20% VAT, so the tax-free price would be £74.17 or around $115. That makes it over 45% more expensive in sterling than in dollars at current exchange rates." (bold highlight added)

But the disappointment with Amazon doesn't stop there. Actually, and from the start,  Kindle books have been systematically more expensive outside the US: Amazon charges $2 to "whispernet" an e-book to a customer (i.e. deliver it via Internet - which of course costs next to nothing). Plus it slaps on a 16% VAT tax because Amazon has elected to be headquartered in Luxembourg. Why go there? The VAT rate is lower there than elsewhere in continental Europe but it's still... 16%! 

As far as I know, its competitors in the US don't do that: it looks like Apple, Sony Store and Barnes and Noble charge the American price to people who live abroad. But I'm not sure and please let me know if you, the owners of iPad, Nook or Kobo, are paying more than 99 cents - the price I set for the first book in my Fear of the Past Trilogy ( I meant that as a "loss leader" - my next books are priced $3.99 in the US market which I feel is more in line with the amount of work I've put into them and with what I believe is their quality)

In any case, the big player in the market is Amazon and if others are charging less, the effect won't be noticeable. And Amazon really seems to be taking its time to enter the European market, perhaps creaming it first...until it actually gets into the market with a Kindle Store!

That's when things start to change. The infamous $2 surcharge has reportedly disappeared from Germany and France the minute Amazon opened its Kindle Store there - yet it's still on in Italy and I believe in Spain too, even though Amazon has just arrived there too.

Why the delays? I have no idea. 

Also, Amazon does very little to support its English-language authors in those newly-opened European markets. For example, you have to set up your author page on Amazon.fr and Amazon.de because it is not automatically transported there by the US-based Amazon.com. These are small things to be sure, but discouraging. 

Also new ideas to spread the market do not seem to be taken into consideration.For example, Amazon could consider setting up cheap translation services for its authors that could be based on the free Google translation function. All that would be needed are a few editors to verify that awkward turns of phrases are taken out and replaced by more appropriate language. That's much faster and cheaper than using a full translation service but no one is offering something like that (either inside of Amazon or out).

What a pity. A globalized market is just out there for the taking! 

If Amazon is too slow, surely that opens the door to others for the taking. It seems that Germans have woken up to the possibility and I've heard there are plenty of German e-book offers outside Amazon and already some German e-readers in the market at very low prices. I haven't seen them and don't know how good they are but if you have, please let me know.

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10.10.2011

Income Inequality: Is Class Warfare Coming to America?

Barack Obama - CaricatureImage by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
As the Occupy Wall Street movement intensifies, the debate heats up on the question of income inequality and what it does to a mature society like the American one.

Obama is taxed as the Class Warfare President!

There have never been so many poor people in America. And, seeing how the Euro crisis is handled, one suspects the same will soon be true for Europe!

The International Monetary Fund has just come out with a study showing that rising income inequality could hurt economic growth. As reported in the Huffington Post , a rising income inequality could now be hindering economic growth.  If income inequality decreased by 10 percent, the duration of an expected period of economic growth would grow by 50 percent. 

A friend of mine who is both a savvy entrepreneur and a politically engaged author, pointed out that we no longer have a model of "trickle down" economics but one of  “flood-upward” to the top one percent, represented by the traders and bankers on Wall Street. He sent me a really striking newsletter about this and I can't resist sharing it with you. It contains, inter alia, a fantastic diagram, judge for yourself!
                    
If it’s Class Warfare – Who’s Winning?

By Gordon S. Black, PhD

  
Family Income 
 
 
The propaganda circulating on the Internet would have you believe that President Barack Obama is engaging in class warfare – pitting the middle and working classes against the “great” makers and shakers who supposedly create the wealth in America.

The current protests on Wall Street and elsewhere are raising the same issue – who is getting better off in America today, the ninety-nine percent represented by most of us or the one percent represented by the men and women who created the financial meltdown in 2008? This is actually a pretty easy question to answer, and you might find it interesting. The chart above is an answer to the questions – who in American is winning the “Class Warfare” and when did it start. The dividing dates are the beginning of the Reagan Revolution in 1980 and the end of the Bush Revolution in 2007.

President John Kennedy famously said: “A rising tide raises all boats,” and in his time it did. The economic prosperity of the post-war period was a shared prosperity that made everyone better off. That “shared prosperity” ended with the three decades that started in 1980.  For the top one percent, life has never been better – huge mansions, private jets and yachts, private schools for their children, and the like. They are clearly the “winners” of the new economic policies. For the rest of us, the top 20 percent is doing all right, but it has been a struggle for everyone else.


Unfortunately, “trickle-down” economics is actually “flood-upward” to the top one percent, represented by the traders and bankers on Wall Street – the men and women who get their huge bonuses even when their institutions fail and spread misery among the rest of us.  The very people who today decry even the most basic safety net for ordinary Americans demand and get their own private safety net against their own failures -- the safety net of "too big to fail" that supports the luxurious lifestyles of tens of thousands of corporate bigwigs who have the political muscle to force Congress to protect them in ways that they would deny to all of the rest of America.  This is the new morality of the corporate managerial elite.

Obama did not start the “class warfare.” It started long before he came into office, and he is attempting to fight back with “too little and too late.” He is up against a $100 million dollar propaganda machine funded by people like the Koch Brothers and aimed at the little people who should know better, but do not.

But how did this happen?

How could the world change so dramatically for the ninety-nine percent of us without our understanding why or how it happened? 

Basically, over the past three decades, the “special interests” in the United States, representing the new “plutocracy,” have purchased Congress wholesale through the campaign financing system, and this chart is a direct expression of the need of the incumbent members of Congress to pay off those “interests” with your and my tax dollars. Their money, backed by billions in lobbying and paid-for advertising and other propaganda, owns Congress on both sides of the aisle, and this chart is what you get – the middle class declining, the working class without jobs, and the impoverished expanding, all trickle-down effects of an experiment in economics begun in 1980 and culminated with the tax-cut experiment under George Bush.

If this is our reality, why do they accuse Obama of “Class Warfare?” 

All propagandists operate with the same kind of lying. The Nazi’s, sponsored by the Krupp Industries, accused Poland of aggression as a pre-text for invading them. The Bush Administration, sponsored by the Koch Brothers, accused Iraq of possessing “weapons of mass destruction” as a pretext for invading Iraq. Now, they accuse Obama of starting a “class warfare” that they themselves started more than three decades ago, and which they are winning spectacularly.

These people rely on you, the American voters, to be dead, dumb and blind to their perfidy – to be little piglets that they can lead to their slaughter where they get everything eventually, and you get nothing at all. 

The final question only you can answer. Are you going to let them continue to slaughter your dreams for yourself and your family? 

Trust me – they believe after three decades of success that you will do nothing to stop them. Are they right?

Gordon S. Black, PhD,
Administrator,

For more information, please visit  www.indielitworld.com 
and join as a reader or as an author

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10.08.2011

Cooking Tips and Recipes from the Heart of Italy...and Belgium!

Lake Trasimeno view, Umbria (Italy)Lake Trasimeno where I live           Image via Wikipedia


I live in the "green heart" of Italy - that's how Italians call Umbria. Il cuore verde dell'Italia.  Right next to Tuscany, it is the land of black truffles, ham, cheese, wine, olive oil, fabulous vegetables and pasta not to mention meat. The famous bistecca alla Fiorentina comes from beef produced 10 miles from where I live. What better place to experiment with cooking?


Recently I've set up my own vegetable garden, not far from Lake Trasimeno, famous for its spectacular sunsets:


Lago di TrasimenoLake Trasimeno sunset  Image by wege7 via Flickr


This year, for the first time we've grown our own vegetables (we've always lived in the city) and it's been quite an adventure: too much of one sort (eggplants, leeks, zucchini), too little of another (cucumber, melon). But whatever we managed to produce tasted exceptional. Tomatoes were actually RED!


You've guessed it, because of the vegetable garden, I found myself often in the kitchen. Thank God I love cooking! Food was always a matter of intense interest in my family, probably a combination of our French background and the numerous travels that brought us in contact with exotic cuisines. When I grew up, we moved all over: from Sweden to Egypt, Belgium, Russia, France, Colombia, the United States, Russia again, Italy, in that order. I've lived in Italy for the past...35 years - longer than anywhere else in the world! 


But now that I'm here by Lake Trasimeno, I feel at home.  



Being married to an Italian, I tend to cook Italian-style to please him...and myself! This is a country where you learn to love genuine, unaltered food rather than try to make clever sauces the way the French do.


This said, a nice tasty sauce to accompany fish is always welcome, particularly when if you live far away from the sea and the poor fish has lost its sea flavor in the long haul to your home!


If you can't grow your own veggies, I'd recommend you get bio food in spite of the extra cost. Bio is generally worth it because...I know, you think I'm going to tell you it's healthier. Maybe it is, this I don't know. But I do know bio food tastes noticeably better...except for eggs! I don't know why. You can't tell a bio egg from one that isn't. Worse, bio eggs don't poach well at all...Just like all the others! I mean, if you try to drop them in slow-boiling water, well...you have a mess! The egg white separates from the yolk and starts floating in the water in long filaments. If you've found a way to avoid that problem, let me know!



For some Italian recipes, like eggplants alla Parmigiana, it's taken me over twenty years to figure out exactly how to do it, and get the eggplant to be both light and airy inside and crisp on the outside. No soggy, oily stuff for me! In fact, I positively hate oily food and use olive oil as little as possible, just enough to avoid burning!


Eggplant ParmigianaEggplants alla Parmigiana Image by bro0ke via Flickr


This said, NEVER leave out cooking oils (or butter - provided you don't burn it!) from your cooking. A little oil is necessary for the body to function properly.


Actually that's been my life rule: since doctors keep changing their advice about what constitutes a healthy diet, I've decided to eat a little of everything, and use every cooking method, not leaving any out.  Do you remember how a few years ago, you were supposed to avoid eggs and spinach? Yet in an earlier decade, eggs were considered extremely healthy and Popeye the Sailor is said to have been invented to promote spinach eating...out of a can, for Goodness' sakes!!!


And you know something odd? The eggplants coming out of my garden, grown without fertilizers or additives of any kind, DON'T TASTE BITTER at all! All cookbooks tell you to sprinkle salt on the eggplant slices and leave it there to soak up the "bitter liquid" inside the eggplants. Well, mine don't have that liquid! They're incredibly sweet and I can cook them without any preparation at all.


Makes you wonder how industrial farms grow eggplants and what it is exactly that you buy in supermarkets...


I set up a separate blog for my recipes - more a den for family and friends than a real blog! It contains nothing but true and tried recipes, the kind I give to my children and hope they will continue to make for their own children...


Click here to go to that blog, try the recipes (they're all super easy) and enjoy! I've pasted below my recipe for Waterzoie, the Belgian National Dish (oh yes, I forgot to tell you, I'm Belgian, not Italian!)


Recipe: Waterzoie




leekImage by roboppy via Flickr

There are 10 million people in Belgium and probably as many ways to make Waterzoie, the national dish! You can make it with chicken or fish or seafood, but in all cases it will have leeks as its characteristic feature. It really is a leek soup with either chicken or fish floating in it.

Sounds bad? Think again! It really is very, very tasty and remarkably easy to do if you follow my recipe - it can be quite a lot of work if you start from scratch and actually make a broth with bones and vegetables to cook your meat or fish in. We're in the 21st century and I'm not ashamed to confess that I use industrial bouillon cubes...

Another advantage of Waterzoie is that it can be prepared in advance: the perfect dish when you have guests!

So here's the recipe for 4 persons.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of leeks cut in julienne strips (at least 4 leeks and try to use the white part and not too much of the green)
  • 1/2 cup white onion, likewise cut in strips
  • 1/2 cup celery, also cut in strips
  • 1 whole breast chicken, leave it whole or cut in two halves,   Alternative: fish or seafood  
  • 1 or 2 bouillon cubes (chicken broth for chicken of course, and fish broth for fish, natch!
  • 1 cup cream (since I live in Italy I use Mascarpone, but normal cream is fine and is what's used in Belgium)
  • 1 egg yolk
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon (or more as needed - it has to have a sharp "tang")
  • Butter: one tablespoon 
  • Flour to thicken the sauce (about one tablespoonful of flour plus one of cornflour - maizena - but you will need to adjust to the quantity of broth you have)
Boiled potatoes to accompany

Method

Boil the potatoes and while they're boiling prepare the waterzoie.

1. Cut all the vegetables, leeks, onion and celery,  in thin strips - julienne - about 1/2 inch long. Put in a wide pot,cover with water, add bouillon cube and a small amount (a tablespoonful) of butter.

2. Simmer, coveredfor about 10 minutes taking care the vegetables don't burn - add water if need be.

3. After that time and as the vegetables start looking limp, add over them the chicken breasts and sprinkle a little salt over the meat. Cover and continue to simmer another 20 minutes until cooked. At that point the vegetables should be soft and the chicken cooked throughout and tender.

3a. If you use fish then you have to add it after the vegetables have cooked at least 20 minutes: the fish always cooks fast. How long that will take depends on the kind of fish you have chosen: for example, sea bass filets in my view don't need more than 5 minutes. Same with shrimps. More time is needed for lobster. Everytime, adjust the cooking of your vegetables that will always require 30 minutes to reach the right point of mellowness.

4. Now in a saucepan prepare the basis of your sauce: beat in a tablespoonful of flour and one of cornflour in 2 cups cold water and set on the fire to boil. This is how I make a "roux": I don't start by melting butter and working the flour in it. That's not needed! You can always add the butter - fresh, better for your health - at the end, when the sauce is done! Remember to beat it with a whisk so that the flour mixes well in the water and keep beating when it boils. It should boil at least 5 minutes to ensure the flour is cooked.

5. Pull out the chicken (or fish) from the pot where cooked and set aside on a warm serving dish (cover to keep the meat warm) You will serve the potatoes peeled in the same serving dish.

6. Do the sauce: pour the "roux" mixture from your saucepan (that you did in step 4) into the pot with the vegetables. Adjust the quantity of broth (I like it fairly liquid - but it's up to you, how thick a leek sauce you really want). Add chicken bouillon cube(s) or fish broth as needed so that it is rather strong tasting: it shouldn't be too bland because at this point you add the cream + egg yolk + lemon juice. Adjust with salt, pepper and lemon to taste. Once the yolk is in, be careful if you need to warm it up : you cannot boil the sauce anymore or it will turn stringy on you!

7To serve: put the sauce (which will be very abundant!) in a soup toureen, and cut the chicken and potatoes for presentation on the serving dish.

This dish should be accompanied by full-bodied red wine if done with chicken - white wine if done with fish.

Enjoy!  You could be eating this in Brussels!


Brussels, view from the Kunstberg hill












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10.06.2011

WIKIPEDIA AT RISK IN ITALY: IS DEMOCRACY DYING HERE?

Silvio Berlusconi - CaricatureThe true face of Berlusconi Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
Wikipedia risks shutdown in Italy, along with one of the most basic democratic rights: the right to freedom of expression! 

Yes, Wikipedia, that most respected, unpolitical source of information, our beloved Internet encyclopedia!

It has its weaknesses and limitations, but no one will disagree that it is by far one of the most useful sources of information and in this early 21st century, it has already replaced for most people - if not for everybody - recourse to the printed Encyclopedia.

Wikipedia blocked all its articles on living Italians, politicians, artists, celebrities - and chief among them Berlusconi - as a 48 hour measure of self-censure to bring home the point to its Italian users of what impact the Government's new wiretap decree would have once approved by Parliament.

If you do a search on Wikipedia you will come across a notice explaining why the information is blocked: under the new law, anyone feeling unhappy with information could demand an amendment. "The obligation to publish on our site the correction... without even the right to discuss and verify the claim" they wrote, "is an unacceptable restriction of the freedom and independence of Wikipedia." 

This obligation is contained in a draft privacy law intended to restrict police wiretaps of the kind that have embarrassed Berlusconi, caught at organizing his famous bunga-bunga parties with young girls - presumably paid whores that his entourage procured him.

He's been trying to tighten Italy's privacy laws since 2008 and it looks like he's about to succeed now.

Unless some Parliamentarians, in the secret voting, decide not to follow instructions from Berlusconi (and his ally Bossi of the Northern League)...But don't kid yourself, they may exempt Wikipedia and blogs from the law, but they will vote most of it through!

Everything should be decided on October 6th and perhaps the decree "ammazzablog" (blog killing) will be amended.

But does that mean that one of democracy's basic freedoms will be preserved?

I don't think so and let me explain why.

Sure, the popular reaction in Italy has been swift and that is certainly most encouraging. It has ranged from Italian protesters wearing gags in front of Parliament to Facebook protest pages where within a few hours over 100,000 people - and possibly at this time of writing, close to a million - have signed.

The press reacted too, and all Italian periodicals had something to say, from Corriere della Sera to La Stampa, publishing over 1,000 articles related to the issue. With just one obvious exception: Il Giornale that unsurprisingly came to the defense of Berlusconi's wiretap law - unsurprisingly because it is owned by Berlusconi's brother. 

The Italian blogosphere also amply resonated with protest. For a vivid example of the ire this has stirred against Berlusconi, click here.

Setting the popular reaction aside, how solid is democracy in Italy? 

Consider the difficulty the Italian political system is encountering in getting rid of Berlusconi. 

He is probably the most unpopular Prime Minister in all of Italy's post-war History. Contempt for this man is universal. I know, I live in Italy and I see it everywhere, in bars, coffee shops, markets, newspapers, blogs... 

He's made promises of reform and he has maintained none.  People are tired of his empty promises.

He hasn't even solved the revolting scandal of thrash disposal in Naples. He sent in the army to clean the city, but didn't solve the problem at its root. Two years later, the city is still struggling with mounting garbage in its streets and has yet to find a way to dispose of it in the face of a corrupt and inept municipal and regional government.

True, he's got a couple of effective ministers in his government: Tremonti (finance) and Marroni (interior). You may not like them but they manage to get things done...up to a point. 

The immigration situation is for the moment under control (or should I say under wraps?) but it could burst in the open any moment. The financial situation is getting worse by the minute as Greece sinks under the weight of its debt. And everybody wonders whether Italy is not the next Greece.

Italian banks, with a few exceptions, may appear relatively healthy but it's only an appearance of health. In fact, they hold Italian bonds - but Italian debt is not just the State's, but also the regions' and municipalities. Cities like Milan and Rome have accumulated huge debts that no one is talking about. Yet they are there, as threatening as the Italian State debt. 

We've recently seen this regional debt phenomena burst open in Portugal (in Madeira) and in Spain. Don't believe it isn't going to come into the open in Italy! That's when Moody's and the rating agencies will really get to work. I bet they'll bring down Italy to B level!

In this coming financial storm - that could very well cause a world-wide recession - how will the Italian political class behave? What will they do? 

Very little or nothing. Why? 

Because they are hopelessly corrupt. They don't vote Berlusconi out because they are attached to their privileges - ranging from a ridiculously high monthly income and pension rights to small things like a free cell phone and free train rides and official cars. They certainly don't want to go to early elections and lose all the privileges!

They don't want a parliamentarian reform that would reduce the number of parliamentarians: the more, the merrier!

They love the wiretap law because it would set them free to say anything they like to their buddies on their cost-free cell phones without fearing any prosecution.

They will never vote the kind of profound reforms needed to balance the budget - like a real overhaul of the pension system or reduction in the number of state employees - because it would alienate most of their electors.
If you don't believe me, consider that the Italian Parliament is about to increase the number of its own employees (by 400) using an internal "leggina" that would allow it to bypass the process of public approval and selection. A great way to give out jobs to family and friends! 

In this climate of corruption and clientelism, how do you think major issues like the sovereign debt crisis can be handled?
How I think it's going to be handled will be the subject of a future blog post, but in the meantime I'd love to hear what you think!


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10.04.2011

AMANDA KNOX IS FREE!

PERUGIA, ITALY - NOVEMBER 24:  Amanda Knox spe...Amanda Knox in Perugia Image by Getty Images via @daylifeAmanda Knox is free, the Italian appellate court has dropped the murder charge against her! Her four-year long ordeal has at last come to an end.

In spite of the storm in the media, it really isn't too surprising: the Italian appellate judge and jury called on to decide what to do with her and her onetime boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, could only work on limited, unconvincing evidence.

There was no definitive witness or evidence showing what really happened on the night of Nov. 1, 2007, when her British roommate Meredith Kercher was murdered in Perugia. Rudy Guede, who came to Italy from the Ivory Coast, was the only person found guilty and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. He refused to testify that Knox and Sollecito were "not involved" in the murder. But the DNA evidence was found to be "possibly unsound" so, in the end, charges were dropped.

This long-winded trial (but Justice in Italy is always slow!) gave me an idea for a short story titled Good-bye Melinda. You'll find it reproduced below.

But let me tell you right away that it is FICTION! The characters and events portrayed in this short story are fictitious and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Sorry to have to give out these classic warnings but I must! Good-bye Melinda is NOT intended as a depiction of what happened in Perugia, and never was. Also please note it was written in 2008, long before much of what transpired came to be known, and indeed many of the details in my short story are totally different.  It is just a piece of fiction, exactly like Agatha Christie when she was inspired by news of thefts and murders.

To write fiction you always have to start from some point in the everyday reality around you! And I happen to live in Italy, a couple of miles from the prison where Amanda Knox was tried...The only thing that matters is whether you the reader enjoy reading it, and I hope you do! 


 Good-bye Melinda 

‘Stupid! Sei stupida!’

He screamed and slapped me hard. I’ll never forget the first time he hit me. I thought I was going to die. 

Then I got used to it. If only I could float away and forget it all. Be somewhere else – back home in America, in my parents’ garden by the lake, watching the sun go down, trying to catch that famous last flash of green light, something I have never been able to do. 

With all the hitting and the pain, I couldn’t float away into blessed oblivion. I couldn’t pretend I was somewhere else. Here I was – incredibly, unaccountably – locked up in a stinking Italian jail. My gaoler, a big dark man with a bristling black beard and a nasty grin towered over me but I hardly saw him anymore. My eyes kept tearing up and he wouldn’t let me wipe them.

‘You’re so stupid!’ Then, back to the questioning: ‘Don’t you remember him? Bongo, your sweet little friend from Gabon? He was there with you in your house when Melinda died…’

I shook my head. As far as I could remember, he wasn’t.

‘You’re lying!’ the man roared. ‘Everyone has seen you with Bongo, you work together in the same bar at night, you drink together, you do drugs together, you make love together…Do you want me to go on?’

I shook my head. Of course, I knew Bongo, the gentle “nero” as they called him here in Florence. He was a student like all of us; I was into Renaissance art, he was into modern architecture, we had met at the language course: we both needed our Italian spruced up – in fact, that’s why he and I were here. I knew him like I knew so many others – so what?

‘Have you lost your tongue?’ the man roared, ‘You drive me crazy! How can you deny the evidence? The neighbors saw the four of you come back to your house around midnight.  Dancing and singing in the street, screaming your heads off – you didn’t care if you woke up the whole neighborhood. Other people go to work in the morning, but you rich kids never do…’

I shrugged.

‘You slut! You come to Italy to have a good time, all you think of is your own sweet pleasure, but, let me tell you, it’s over. Over, do you hear me? Over!’ he screamed. ‘Melinda is dead, and if it isn’t Bongo’s fault, then it’s yours! Is that what you want? We’ll slap the murder charge on you!’

He stopped, out of breath and then added in a raucous voice: ‘you know what? I am beginning to think that poor Bongo had nothing to do with it! Melinda was your roommate, she was your friend. You knew her. Murders always happen among people who know each other well. You were the one with every reason to kill her!’

I shuddered, and opened my mouth to tell him it was nonsense. But nothing came out. It was too difficult to explain. 

Melinda was my roommate, sure, but we weren’t friends. She was sweet but fat and homely. I am thin and I like smart clothes. She was too English, too narrow-minded, too stuck to be my friend. We really had nothing in common and nothing to say to each other. But I didn’t actively dislike her. She was a convenient roommate. She paid her part of the rent, she kept the kitchen clean, she was discrete. 

We went out together not because we were friends. It was because of the men. I met a lot of people at the bar and so did Bongo. He was helpful.  He was willing to come along when I wasn’t sure I wanted to date a particular guy. He’d pair up with Melinda. It was convenient. I think he liked her English peach and cream look. 

That evening we had made a foursome with Giacomo, an Italian I had just met. Good looking, lots of dark, curly hair, a ring in his ear that made him look like a pirate of the Caribbean. But there was something ominous about him - like a hidden secret and I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the night with him. 

When we got home, he produced grass, we smoked the four of us in the kitchen of our old rented house. With thick walls and tight-shutting windows, we needn’t fear any intrusion, and that was nice and relaxing. Then something happened next door, in Melinda’s room.

‘Don’t pretend you don’t remember, because I know you do!" yelled the man. "Let’s go over this one more time. And this is the last time: my patience is at an end! At the end of the evening, Melinda went to her room, didn’t she?’

He shook me repeating in a scream: ‘didn’t she?’

I nodded. She did.

‘Who went in with her?’
I shook my head. Giacomo was with me and so was Bongo. At least I think so but I was tired of telling him. I had said it all before.

‘It was Bongo, the “nero” kid who followed her in? Wasn’t it? Come on, you know he did. What’s stopping you?’

I don’t know what’s stopping me. I just can’t remember. May be Bongo went in, and Giacomo and I stayed behind in the kitchen, smoking away. I just don’t remember. 

But why would Bongo ever murder Melinda? He liked her so much. Who could have done it? I wish I knew. It’s frightening not to know. Was it Giacomo? But he had only just met Melinda, he hardly knew her, or did he? There was this darkness about him, that look of repressed violence – perhaps he cultivated it to impress females. In a way, he had succeeded with me: I thought him interesting, but he scared me. I didn’t trust him. I don’t know why.

My goaler stared at me in silence, disgust showing in his face. ‘You know, sometimes I think you kids get so bored in life that you’re ready to try anything to get a high," he said. "And when drugs won’t do it, a good murder will, with blood everywhere. Do you have any idea at all how repulsive all this is?’ 

I thought he was going to hit me again but he didn’t. He stomped out, banging the door shut. I was one again alone in my cell. I watched the sun go down through the bars until it was totally dark, and I thought of the sun back home. There was no flash of green light. There never is.

The next day was a repeat. 

And the next one, and the next after. How many days? I lost count. I never had any answers. 

The more they asked, the more I was confused. And afraid. Who knows who had done it? Bongo, the one with the fat, jolly smile? Giacomo, with his dark, brooding eyes? Could it have been me? That was scary. If I was capable of killing Melinda and couldn’t remember a thing, what kind of a person was I?

One day, after a long, long time the door opened and someone who wasn’t my gaoler stepped in. A big man.

My father!

I ran up to him and sobbed, crying my heart out. He took me in his strong arms and looked at me intensely with his soft blue eyes: I felt like his little girl again. My life had come apart. Surely he had the answer, didn’t he? It couldn’t have been me. No it couldn’t, he said, I shouldn’t worry. He was very firm on that point, he knew who it was. Bongo of course, who else? Not the Italian, but the boy from Gabon. The African. That was obvious, couldn’t I see it? I shook my head. And then my father lost his patience, just like the gaoler.

‘You’re stupid!’ he yelled, ‘Why can’t you remember who went into that room with Melinda?’

Bongo, of course, who else?

Maybe so. I agreed because he was my father. And I was immediately rewarded. Peace descended on me. I knew I was safe.

Together at last, my father and I sat in my cell and watched the sun go down in silence. Between the bars. This time I caught a ray of green light, just before it sank below the Tuscan hills.

*              *             *

Much later – fifteen years later – I sought out Bongo in Florence when he came out of jail after serving his sentence. He had grown fat but I recognized his warm dimpled smile immediately. 

We had espresso at the bar near the Duomo where we used to work. Suddenly, he leant forward across the table and, speaking softly, he thanked me profusely for the million dollars my father had given him. He was now a rich man – a happy man. There was only one thing he regretted: Melinda.

Good-bye Melinda…

Enjoyed it? If you'd like to read more short stories inspired by current events, click here


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