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Quake homeless “enjoy a weekend of camping” April 8, 2009

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The quiz of the day: who uttered such a profanity today, during an interview to german television, referring to the victims of the destructive earthquake who destroyed part of central Italy two days ago ?

I will give you a few hints. It is the same person who just a few days ago embarassed Italy at the G20, the same person who a few years ago suggested in a verbal exchange at the european parliament that Schultz, a german socialist, would make a very good nazist kapo’.

Ok, if you haven’t figured it out already, check it out on the times online.

I am ashamed of the person Italians has elected as their representative, and I feel especially bad since now I cannot even tell myself that the US president is even worse anymore.

A lifetime of bribes March 31, 2009

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Do you remember Mario Chiesa ? Of course you don’t -seventeen years have passed since his arrest in flagrance of bribery, and, weren’t it for the explosive developments that ensued, his story would have only appeared as a one-column piece in local newspapers, and would have long been forgotten by now.

But Chiesa did make headlines for months in January 1992. The bribery system that was standing behind the curtains he took down as he spilt his guts bit by bit was one of gigantic proportions – italians were shown in a true coup de theatre how the current political system, led by Arnaldo Forlani’s Democrazia Cristiana and Bettino Craxi’s Partito Socialista, was one centered on systematic corruption. Politicians drew money from the business world in fixed percentages, and in exchange helped the businesses which paid those bribes; everybody thrived in this vortex of dirty funds. A few of the politicians got rich, but most of them contented themselves with their increased political means.The parties governing the country fed themselves to retain their power.

Of course, many had known about the whole thing for decades. The funny stories on Craxi and the Socialist Party were countless, and citizens who did not support the government with their votes felt a tad cleaner than those who did; all, however, stood in a sort of forbearance. But things changed overnight: Chiesa’s deposition constituted proof of the misdemeanor, and judges in Milano teamed in to expose the corruption with momentum.

Heads fell one after the other. Craxi fled to Hammamet, where he would spend the rest of his life in a gilded self-inflicted exile; others committed suicide; the toughest fought mightily in judicial courts, and some, as Mario Chiesa, did time. Those were the years of “Mani Pulite” (clean hands), which were saluted with relief by the largest part of the population.

Today, Chiesa is not the young, enterprising fellow he was back then. But he has apparently not lost his vice yet. He was arrested yesterday for charges of bribery, in a story of illicit drain of waste.

If I look back at these last 17 years, I cannot help smiling at the incredible turn-around which ensued. We once had a system whereby politicians received illegal funds to advantage businesses, and used those funds to retain their power. Now we have a system where the two subjects have become one and the same: this way, there is no more a passage of money: the politician and the businessman are the same person, which legislates in a perfect match of interests. He makes the laws that allow his businesses to thrive, and his businesses work to increase his political power. I do believe Berlusconi is serious when he says there is no conflict of interests in Italy: his is, in fact, quite the opposite: a matrimony.

Not a normal country – but maybe an amusing one February 18, 2009

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In the news today: the british lawyer David Mills has been found guilty yesterday of accepting at least 600,000 dollars in 1998 to produce false testimony, in order to help Silvio Berlusconi get acquitted in two separate trials where he was charged for corruption and other frauds -business as usual, for him.

The news is rather curious for two reasons. The first one is technical: in the trial, Mills and Berlusconi were being judged together, but the latter was excluded by virtue of a law, the infamous “lodo Alfano“, which the italian government passed a few months ago, and which prevents the Prime Minister (along with the President of the Republic, and the heads of the two parliament chambers) from being tried during his or her mandate.

Thanks to that ad hoc law, produced by a member of Berlusconi’s party-company, Forza Italia, and passed with urgency through the legislative iter, Silvio Berlusconi evaded a sure embarassment and the probable sentence of guilt for corruption in Mills’ favor. The aftermath of all this is that we now have a person who received money to produce false testimony and save Berlusconi in his two processes, but we cannot try who gave him the money. Note, the sentence says who Mills received money from -Silvio Berlusconi- but the corruptor is left out of the whole business. I find this peculiar.

The other detail is more hilarious -I would say Jonescan. David Mills, besides a 54-month imprisonment, faces the unpleasant charge of having to give 250,000 euros to the italian Premier’s office. That is because the italian State’s Bar, which represented the Premier’s office at the trial, obtained the sum as a reparation. So Mills received money by Berlusconi. He was condemned, Berlusconi got away with it, and now Mills has to go to the italian premier and
say, “Dear italian premier, here is the reparation money -but wait a second, haven’t we met already ?“.

Italy is not a normal country: in a normal country, a prime minister would have resigned from office, having been proven a corruptor. Not in Italy: here, if you get away with your sins, you are considered kind of cool.

But Italy is also a definitely entertaining country: for its politics, and for some of its politicians.

In favor of death for Eluana February 9, 2009

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The case of Eluana Englaro, a woman in irreversible coma since 1992, is causing an institutional conflict in Italy, as well as a pitiful example of “insolence of office”.

The story is long, and if you have not followed it on the newspapers, it is hard for me to summarize its salient points. However, here is a speed attempt.

A jury has decreed that the father has the right to ask for a stop of the forced nutrition, thereby allowing Eluana to die as was her wish in case of such an infermity. The vatican screamed of homicide, and the minister of health tried to stop the transfer of the body to a clinic where the procedure could be implemented, getting to the point of publically threatening the clinics officials. Then, a suitable place was found in Udine, and Eluana was transferred there. In a crescendo of drama, while the stoppage of nutrition and hydratation of the poor body was getting started, the italian government rushed to try a urgent decree which would prohibit such a procedure. The decree, to be executive, had to go through a signature of the President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano; but Napolitano had already expressed his negative opinion on such a unmotivated urgency in a matter -the rights of a person to refuse to be cured- which would have required much analysis.

Today we are assisting at several other attempts at “saving the life” of Eluana by the italian government, which is nothing than an execution of Vatican orders: a full-fledged law is being rushed through the Senate (it is just the decree rejected by Napolitano, so one wonders what difference it could make); the Police force is threatening to take possession of the rooms where Eluana is resting in the clinic, claiming that the site is non-compliant to specifications; judges are investigating on the clinic itself. In the meantime, stand-offs of pro-life and pro-choice activists take place in front of the clinic. On the right, pro-choice activists; below, pro-life activists.

I am thoroughly disgusted at the sight of a State that cannot life a life independently of its religious appendage. But disgust is not the end of the story: I am also quite alarmed by the reactionary moves of the Berlusconi government, which shows for the umpteenth time to not care for the democratic rules and the constitution, whose predicaments their decree was neglecting. Berlusconi is ignoring Napolitano’s pledge for a pacate, unrushed discussion on a law for the “biologic legacy”, which should govern the rights of citizens in matters concerning the end of life, forced cure, and related topics. By forcing a law on such matters through the parliament, Berlusconi aims at exacerbating the conflict with the head of the State, in order to create the conditions for a change of the italian Constitution, which would allow him to take Napolitano’s seat with greatly increased powers.

In the meantime, Eluana is finally dying, as she would have wanted to do 17 years ago. However, while this is happening we are assisting at pro-life fanatics claiming that the family does not really know the real intentions of their daughter, in a desperate attempt to “save her life”. Let me be clear on one thing here: if for accident or illness I fall in a persistent vegetative condition, it is my will that my life be terminated, by whatever means are found appropriate. It is my will that no forced feeding and hydratation be continued without aim if there are no reasonable chances to ever return me to a conscious state. And, being a scientist, by “reasonable” I mean 5%, not one in a million!

UPDATE: Eluana died one hour ago. Would you guess this made people silent ? Nope.  Accusations of homicide flew around in the italian Senate, catholic personalities felt the urge to express their feelings, the government claims they will bring forward their law “such that Eluana’s sacrifice has not been vain”. The disgust continues. I think it will last four more years.

UPDATE: a few links in English on the matter:

Apartheid in italian schools October 21, 2008

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That, in a nutshell, is the proposal of minister Mariastella Gelmini (Forza Italia), the young and energetic lawyer placed by Berlusconi at the helm of the Instruction. Gelmini is trying to pass a law which reduces personnel in public schools by 132,000 units, cutting in the flesh and blood of the schooling system, particularly in elementary and middle schools. High-school and university students are flooding all italian cities protesting against that plan, together with the plan of a reduction of funding to Universities (1.5 billion euros in five years) and the downsizing of research institutes.

The most outrageous proposal, however, is one that attempts to create “bridge classes” for children of immigrants. These separate classes, according to Gelmini, will ease the little rascals’ integration, addressing first their most urgent problems with the language. This will also improve the quality of teaching to italians by descent, who will not have to drag the ballast of children with understanding problems.

Gelmini and the right-wing government are defending the law against an uproar of disgust from the opposition, from the catholics, and from all civilized citizens who can still think without the help of a TV set. I think Gelmini and her crooks really overstepped the mark. They have a solid majority in both parliament chambers, but they will go down with this immoral, racist proposal. Or, at least, that is what I hope. Italians, unfortunately, still appear feel more threatened by the economy these days, and many do not feel they care a lot about such a degradation in the public school system. Berlusconi’s government is ranking very high in appreciation. I wonder what country Italy has become.

Presidential love October 15, 2008

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It is not a mystery that George W. and Silvio are good friends. And I have nothing against that – I do not like either of them, so the fact that they are very close to each other makes things simpler for me. Also, Berlusconi is a very good friend of Putin, so that makes it even easier. They collectively activate the same neurons in my brain, in the part which does the simplest love/hate classifications.

Mind you, I do not “hate” them. I cannot bring myself to hate a person I have never met. But I get close to that feeling with these new-age tyrants. In any case, I cannot help feeling sympathy for the duo when I see such a string of demonstrations of friendship as the display they recently put together. The number of kisses, hugs, and pats on the back they entertained themselves with was enormous, and the pictures below (which I stole from Repubblica’s site) are just a sampler.

Italy and the US have never been so close before… I wonder the US will allow Italy to build a military base in its territory, to reciprocate the US bases in italian soil. It would be a nice act with which GW could end his flying color 8-year presidency.

…No way, huh ? Well then, why not just putting italian-passport holders on a priority line with no immigration checks at US airports ? That’d be still something.

Italian Universities and Research Institutes save Banks. Who will save italian research ? October 10, 2008

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(This post is partially flawed by a wrong interpretation of the faulty italian in the decree it mentions. I do not take it off since I still subscribe to most of what I wrote below. See note at bottom).

Italian credit institutes are not immune to the huge financial crisis we are witnessing throughout the world markets. The first ones are already yielding to the pressure (Unicredit for instance), and many will follow suit. Of course, the italian government must throw a life jacket to these benefactors. The problem, however, is that there is no money to spend in Italy’s budget. What is Berlusconi’s finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, going to do ? Will Giulio manage to save the sinking banks ?

Worry not. Banks will be saved. If that means burning a few billion euros and paralyzing a few Universities and research institutes, hitting their ordinary administration with unforeseen cuts that impinge on the flesh of their budget, the part which goes to pay salaries and bills, too bad. After the invention of the concept of “creative finance”, minister Tremonti will now appeal to the concept of “creative research”, whereby experiments will be built with scavenged scrap metal pieces and computing will be performed on private-owned cell phones. Did you know that the computing power of the hundred million cell phones owned by italian citizens would be enough to manage a medium-sized particle physics experiment ? Let’s release that potential!

Unfortunately, there is little to laugh about. It is all written down in a document issued yesterday, the Decreto Ministeriale number 155 titled “Misure urgenti per garantire la stabilita’ del sistema creditizio e la  continuita’ nell’erogazione del credito alle imprese e ai consumatori, nell’attuale situazione di crisi dei mercati finanziari internazionali” (urgent measures to guarantee the stability of the credit system and the continuity of supply of credit to businesses and consumers, in the present situation of crisis of international finance markets). Here are the salient parts:

Art. 1: 1.The minister of Economy and Finances is authorized, even in dispensation from accounting rules of the State, to subscribe or guarantee capital increases decided by italian banks which present a situation of patrimonial inadequacy certified by the Banca d’Italia. […] 7. With a decree by the President of the Council of Ministers […] the resources to fund the operations are identified […]: a linear reduction of financiary allotment […] of the ordinary fund to Universities; of resources allotted to research […].

At least, these cuts to Universities and research institutes are motivated by an international crisis. The 132,000 layoffs in the public school system, recently passed by another decree, are instead motivated just by the will of Berlusconi’s government to reduce taxes -particularly to those who suffer the most: those poor souls who, earning several hundred thousand euros a year, see their income heavily curtailed. Berlusconi is a real Robin Hood: an upside-down one. He now steals from Universities to fund banks: he’s just amazing. I wonder if his next move will be to close public hospitals to fund an increase of troops in Afghanistan – but I fear reality will continue to outdo fantasy.

UPDATE: Ok, this will remain as an example of how the current state of affairs in italian politics has made us all a bit paranoid. Indeed, after a commenter below pointed it out, I found out that the bureaucratical language of the decree leaves room to two opposite interpretations: the first is that the funds to University and research are excluded from the curtailing, the second, as I reported naively, is that they are part of the pool of funds which will be cut.

I now believe the “correct” reading is the one which excludes University and research funds, along with a list of others, from being reduced to increase bank capitals. A sigh of relief.

Not a Say of the Week but… October 10, 2008

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I cannot log this in as a Say of the Week because it is a bit over the top, but I thought I’d record it here anyways, since it was well worth a sound laugh as I read it:

Bella donna, ma che tariffe!“.

Translating this is taking some of the punch away, at least for someone with a mediocre lexicon such as myself. I need to try anyways for you spoiled English monoglots:

“Beautiful woman, but what fees!”.

It is the ironic comment pronounced by Sabina Guzzanti, an italian comedian who had personally attacked the minister for equal opportunities, Mara Carfagna, during a show. Guzzanti had lingered on the topic of the sexual encounter between the ex-cover girl and the italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, which had allegedly fruited Carfagna a seat in the italian parliament. In response, Carfagna sued Guzzanti yesterday, asking for a million euro as a compensation for the defamatory remarks. The fees Guzzanti alludes to are of course the parliament seat itself and the million euros.

Berlusconi’s plan for universities and research October 2, 2008

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Just so you know what is going on in Italy as far as funding for research, fixing the precarious position of young researchers, and politics on instruction and universities are concerned, I paste below a quick-and-dirty summary of a piece by Rino Falcone, from the Osservatorio Ricerca (research observatory).

The politics of Berlusconi and his ministers Tremonti (economy), Brunetta (public affairs), and Gelmini (instruction) on University and Research are determining a future prospect for Italy which is outside of the Lisbon agreement, that is outside the european strategy which identified in knowledge the central pivot point of the new economic and social development.

We report below the list of disastrous actions of the italian government:

1) money to abrogate a tax (called ICI) on the ownership of one’s residency for families with high incomes is coming in part on a reduction by 467 million euros the national funding of Universities (6% of the total, which however can only reduce the compressible expenses like maintenance, metabolism, etc., which is 13% of the total);

2) a law (number 133/08) foresees a reduction to 20% of the turn-over for universities (among 5 retirees, only one new hire) in 2009-2013 with a reduction of funding increasing from 64 million euros in 2009 to 455 million euros in 2013. For research institutes there will be a 20% reduction in 2009.[…]

Adding the cuts to universities from ICI and turn-over, in 2009-2013 there will be a reduction of almost 4 billion euros (5.6 billion dollars).

3) In 133/08 the possibility is given to universities to become private foundations. The risks to the autonomy of teaching, besides to those research fields not palatable on economic grounds, are clear. […]

4) Law 133/08 foresees, even for research institutes, a reduction of personnel by more than 10%. […]

5) finally, and most serious, since it attacks the weakest as well as the most valuable part for an investment in the future, is a combination of articles of the various laws which limits to three years the non-permanent contracts with researchers, in institutions where hiring of permanent personnel is almost non-existent these years.

The picture emerging from the above is quite clear:

– economical cuts which cannot be withstood by the research institutes and universities;

– waste of the most valuable resources for a country: young, talented researchers in science. It is not by chance that everywhere in the world young italians get quickly hired in qualified positions.[…]

I am reminded of a funny cartoon by Gary Larson I saw attached on a wall in the office of my friend Francesco Vianello in Bruxelles:  a symposium with dinosaurs of all kinds, the speaker saying “The picture’s pretty bleak, gentlemen: climates are changing, mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain the size of a walnut”.

A deafening silence September 26, 2008

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And besides, it was a deliberate choice. In May this year, italians voted to give the center-right coalition a large majority of seats in the parliament. It was a vote towards a reduction of taxes, a vote for the privatization of social services like instruction and medical care, a vote against immigration.

So, who can blame Berlusconi‘s government for realizing the promises that brought him to power?

Sure, his minister of Finances Giulio Tremonti has been quick to say that a reduction of taxes, in this sorry financiary situation, will only be possible in the last year of the government’s mandate. They did, however, cancel the one and maybe only italian tax on estate, the one that everybody, even total tax evaders, had to pay: ICI, the tax on the possession of real estate. Everybody cheered: evidently, people in Italy do not want taxes, and plaud at tax evaders. Evaders got richer by this measure, others got poorer.

And of course, the idea of taking fingerprints of children in Rom camps has horrified the whole European Union and brought the incredulity of the Vatican itself, which has started to criticize those recent actions against immigrants which have already been taken.

Of course, small towns and communities in sparsely populated or mountainous areas are now complaining for the closing down of small peripheric hospitals. Theirs is the problem of having to travel for an emergency, after all, so this is not a complaint that can make damage.

One thing really surprises me however. The silence after minister Maria Stella Gelmini decreed a cut of 132,000 employees in the primary and secondary public schools is deafening. She is cutting expenses by 10 billion dollars a year to public schools, and very little is heard about it. The democrats in our country are silenced by their own demotivation and their demoralization, they are feeling impotent to stop this destruction of Italy’s social infrastructures.

Many, instead, will be happy to see the public schooling system go down the drain. The reduction in teachers of primary schools means that the level of instruction will decrease. Primary schools in Italy in many cases run full-time, from 8AM to 4PM (Filippo’s schedule), and pre-school is 9AM to 3PM (Ilaria’s schedule). My family can manage it if they get their time at school cut -we have some help- but many mothers and fathers will be forced to spend more time at home with their kids. The poor will get poorer. Meanwhile, in the face of the planned reduction of teachers, minister Gelmini tries to reassure us: she actually claims that she will increase by 50% the full-time in primary schools. That really appears like a magician’s trick.

Polls show that italians generally believe this is a government that does. The image projected on media and newspapers (largely owned or controlled by the premier) is clear. And maybe I myself have been brainwashed, but I have to admit, I feel it is much easier in Italy for the center-right to pass laws, since they are so much less constrained by ethical obligations and the need to hear all dissenting voices before taking decisions. They act swiftly. They, too, curse each other now and then, but this does not cause ripples in the cohesion of the government. Am I too malicious if I think they are too attached to power to risk it for an ideal?

Beware, I am not saying the center-left government we had in 2006-2008 was much less attached to power. However, their manouvering was much more constrained -by the small margin of parliament votes they had, and by the many different souls, some of them conflicting, that made up the democratic coalition. But this also meant that minorities would be heard. They were much less effective in carrying out their program, and succumbed in last May’s elections.

So, bit by bit, I see a plan coming together. I am awed by observing the convergence of several independent ideas on how to make an authoritarian turn in our country. That, while securing our premier’s businesses. Thirty years ago, a secret mason sept called P2 (for “Publicity 2”) was discovered. It had more than a thousand members among journalists, politicians, notables. The master of the sept, Licio Gelli, had a plan called “Piano di Rinascita Democratica” (plan of a democratic rebirth), which included many of the reforms we see put in place today.

Let me translate a small part of that plan, concerning the control of the press, for you (the full text is available here, in italian).

It will be necessary to create a list of at least two or three elements, for each daily newspaper or periodical, such that none of them knows about the others. The action will have to be managed chain-like, by not more than three or four members who know the business.

To the acquired journalists will have to be given the task of “sympathize” for the political figures chosen above in both hypotheses 1c) and 1d). At a later stage it will be necessary to:

a) acquire some battling newspapers;

b) coordinate all the provincial and local press through a centralized agency;

c) coordinate many cable TV networks with the agency for local press;

d) dissolve RAI-TV [the national TV -t.’s n.] in the name of the freedom of antenna, ex art. 21 of the Constitution.

Berlusconi‘s P2 card was number 1816.