Posts tagged ‘Italy’

On Language Courses

Last time we were in Italy, my wife and I vowed that we would try to learn some Italian before we return (she has some high school French and I have a fair amount of Spanish).   Well, we never did much about it.  I will confess that despite being often skeptical of the paradox of choice, it may actually explain my lack of action.  I could not make up my mind between the various courses.

Then along came my son, who has decided with his roommate that they want to do a semester abroad in Italy next year.  I am not sure why he chose Italy -- I can only assume it had something to do with my euphoric descriptions of finding myself in Milan on Vogue fashion night and being surrounded by Italian models.  You know that language course ad with the guy picking up the Italian course so he can have his one chance at the Italian supermodel?  It's a funny ad, but I fear it may actually hit kind of close to home in my household.

Anyway, my son pushed me over the top to buy a course.  The conflicting online reviews can leave your head spinning, but the general conclusions I came to were:

  • Rosetta Stone is all marketing, but not the best course
  • Pimsleur got the most positive ratings.

So I went with the Pimsleur course.  It is PC-based, which fits how my family works.  It allows four installations, so each family member got one.  And it allows its lessons to be downloaded to mp3 files so you can listen in the car or on your iPod (though you lose out on the other parts of the lesson which are non-audio).

So far, 20 days into the thing, I have been happy.  I have never thought of myself as good at languages but I have decided to trust the process.  So far, I feel like I am learning and retaining a lot.  My son reports that he thinks it is better than Rosetta Stone, which his roommate is using.

The weird part for me, who learned Spanish from a grammar nazi, is to work with verbs without first learning all the conjugation rules.   In fact, the course seems to work this way -- you learn examples and phrases first, then over time go back and learn the grammar behind what you are doing.  It seems to work, for a few reasons.  One is that a lot of the verbs you need early on to say basic things (is, go, like) have non-standard conjugations anyway, so memorizing them is what you would have had to do with any approach.  A second reason is that it is a hell of a lot more fun to say useful things than to spend what I remember to be years farting around with conjugation and use rules for the subjunctive.  After all, I am not trying to write an academic paper in Italian, I am trying to enjoy my tourist experience.  The third reason this is working for me is that I do remember a lot of my old Spanish verb conjugations, and it turns out Italian conjugates (at least in the present tense) very similarly to Spanish.

Postscript:  To the early joke about learning Italian to meet women, I will say we were all laughing through about the first 7 lessons of Pimsleur.  If you had designed a course solely to pick up people of the opposite sex, I am not sure one bit of the first few lessons would have been different.  Seriously, we were repeating phases like "do you want to have a drink at your place or mine?"

A Short Rant on Over-Saturated Photography

I was at a couple of art shows during my vacation, and saw a lot of photography.  A staple of photography are the shots of Italian allies and colorful sea villages.  I have one on my wall that I shot myself, the classic view you have seen a million times of Vernazza, Italy.  My wife observed that these photos at the shows looked different than mine (she said "better").

The reason was quickly apparent, and I am seeing this more and more in the Photoshop world -- all the artists have pumped the color saturation way up.  I had to do this a bit, because the colors desaturate some when they get printed on canvas.  But these canvases friggin glowed.  I see the same thing in nature photography.  Is this an improvement?  I don't know, but I am a bit skeptical.  It reminds me a lot of how TV's are sold.  TV pictures tend to be skewed to over-bright and over-vivid colors because those look better under the fluorescent lights of the sales floor.  TV's also tend to have their colors tuned to the very cool (blue) color temperatures for the same reason.  None of this looks good in a darkened room watching a film-based movie.  Fortunately, modern TV's have better electronics menus and it is easy to reverse these problems, and my guess is there is less of this anyway now that many TV's are sold online based on reviews rather than comparison shopping in a store.

I am left to wonder though how this new super-vivid, over saturated photography would look in a home, and how it wears with years of viewing.  Am I being a dinosaur resisting a technological improvement or is there a real problem here?

European Auster-Yeti

There are people who will swear to this day that, despite all evidence to the contrary, Bigfoot exists and they have seen it.  Paul Krugman similarly is just sure he has seen European austerity.  The rest of us are left scratching our heads for the evidence -- he doesn't even have a blurry photo or footprint.  Just tales from a friend of a friend, who is not only sure there has been austerity, but that it caused an old lady to dry her cat in a microwave and that if you swim 20 minutes after eating you will get cramps.

The official Keynesian story is that the PIIGS of Europe (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) have been devastated by cutbacks in public spending. Austerity has made things worse rather than better – clear proof that Keynesian stimulus is the answer. Keynesians claim the lack of stimulus (of course paid for by someone else) has spawned costly recessions which threaten to spread.  In other words, watch out Germany and Scandinavia: If you don’t pony up, you’ll be next.

Erber finds fault with this Keynesian narrative. The official figures show that PIIGS governments embarked on massive spending sprees between 2000 and 2008. During this period, their combined general government expenditures rose from 775 billion Euros to 1.3 trillion – a 75 percent increase. Ireland had the largest percentage increase (130 percent), and Italy the smallest (40 percent). These spending binges gave public sector workers generous salaries and benefits, paid for bridges to nowhere, and financed a gold-plated transfer state. What the state gave has proven hard to take away as the riots in Southern Europe show.

Then in 2008, the financial crisis hit. No one wanted to lend to the insolvent PIIGS, and, according to the Keynesian narrative, the PIIGS were forced into extreme austerity by their miserly neighbors to the north. Instead of the stimulus they desperately needed, the PIIGS economies were wrecked by austerity.

Not so according to the official European statistics. Between the onset of the crisis in 2008 and 2011, PIIGS government spending increased by six percent from an already high plateau.  Eurostat’sprojections (which make the unlikely assumption that the PIIGS will honor the fiscal discipline promised their creditors) still show the PIIGS spending more in 2014 than at the end of their spending binge in 2008.

As  Erber wryly notes: “Austerity is everywhere but in the statistics.”

Italy Jails Scientists for Failing to Predict Earthquake

Unbelievable.  We will be burning witches next.

Six Italian scientists and an ex-government official have been sentenced to six years in prison over the 2009 deadly earthquake in L'Aquila.

A regional court found them guilty of multiple manslaughter.

Prosecutors said the defendants gave a falsely reassuring statement before the quake, while the defence maintained there was no way to predict major quakes.

The 6.3 magnitude quake devastated the city and killed 309 people.

It took Judge Marco Billi slightly more than four hours to reach the verdict in the trial, which had begun in September 2011.

The seven - all members of the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks - were accused of having provided "inexact, incomplete and contradictory" information about the danger of the tremors felt ahead of 6 April 2009 quake, Italian media report.

This is what I call the layman's "CSI" view of science, which assumes that certainty is possible in analyzing and forecasting complex systems.  I am not going to blame the victim here, but I will note that scientists have to some extent made this situation far worse by insisting that they have levels of certainty they do not have, particularly in highly charged political debates (e.g. economics and climate).

Harvard physicist Luboš Motl argues it will give scientists roughly the same incentives doctors have in areas with lots of malpractice suits:

The verdict de facto lionizes crackpots who were screaming that there had to be a large earthquake and they just happened to be right in that case – while isomorphic and sometimes the very same crackpots are wrong in 99.9% of other cases in which they cry wolf – and it condemns the scientific method. They are wrong in 99.9% of cases because their predictive framework has nothing to do with science – it's all about a psychopathological paranoia – but even a broken clock is right twice a day.

The lesson for the scientists is clear: If you are a scientist who is qualified in a discipline that has implications for the safety of people, you must always recommend precautionary measures to be taken even if you conclude that the probability that something bad will happen is tiny. Italy may expect much more hysteria in various similar science-related situations than it has had so far because a court has declared a war on everyone who is honest and balanced.

Can you imagine that this sick logic would be applied e.g. to surgeons? Surgeons could spend 6 years in prison after every death of a patient whom they or others were optimistic about. It's just insane. People sometimes die, natural catastrophes sometimes occur, and it's just impossible to identify a human culprit in most cases. Only if a professional makes a mistake in which he or she has demonstrably violated some established and functional rules to reduce the risk – and whether or not this was the case may only be determined by another expert – he or she could be considered co-responsible for the deaths.

Scam Alert

Most folks, by now, know to be suspicious of this kind of thing.  My wife is looking at buying a high-end sewing machine (e.g. a Bernina).  Apparently, these machines along with high-end bikes are a hotbed for scam artists.  The story is almost always the same - I had to leave the country suddenly, and am selling my machine which I left with an escrow company in the US.

Example 1, person supposedly in Italy

Example 2, person supposedly in Spain

Both suggested escrow companies, but in both cases the escrow companies smelled bad.  Here was one example link the "seller" sent us.  This is unbelievably sketchy, merely a forum web post rather than an actual web site.  Google searches quickly demolished the credibility of the escrow suggestions, and when we suggested an escrow company we knew to be legit, emails from the sellers ended.

California Schadenfreude

From Zero Hedge:

The hoped-for April spike in personal income tax revenues for the State of California fell once again below theoveroptimistic assumptions used to get the budget to “balance.” Instead of the $9.4 billion that the government had counted on collecting in April, it only collected $7.4 billion, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office. A 21% shortfall! In addition, corporate taxes were $450 million below forecast. After months of “disappointing” tax revenues, the total shortfall in income taxes now amounts to $3.5 billion for fiscal 2012 ending June 30.

The budget, supposedly balanced when it was passed last summer, had been spewing red ink from day one. Tax revenues were one problem. Expenditures were the other. The most recent re-revisions pegged the deficit at $9.2 billion. That was a few weeks ago. Now it’s going to be re-re-revised to nearly $12 billion.

Just how bankrupt does a budgeting process have to be for a budget that is supposedly in balance turn out to be $12 billion overdrawn barely 9 months later?  I have a California state tax refund on my desk -- better cash it quick or else its going to be replaced by scrip again.

The same article has this interesting tidbit about California high speed rail:

The CHSRA plan assumes that it would cost 10 cents per passenger mile (the average cost of carrying one passenger one mile at a given load factor) when international high-speed rail systems averaged 43 cents per mile, according to a report that just surfaced. The low-cost leader was Italy with 34 cents per mile; at the upper end were Germany and Japan with 50 cents per mile; Amtrak’s Acela Express, though not truly high speed, was in the middle with 44 cents per mile. And in California, it’s going to be 10 cents per mile?

The CHSRA correctly assumes that train tickets compete with air fares and the cost of driving, which, despite our incessant complaints, are lower in California than overseas. Thus, the US market requires cheaper tickets. And to make the project appear profitable, and thus more digestible for the taxpayer, the CHSRA lowered its projected operating costs to less than a quarter of the international average.

But if actual operating costs are 43 cents per mile and not 10 cents per mile, annual subsidies of $2 billion to $3 billion would be required just to keep the trains running, according to the report. Yet, AB3034, the California High-Speed Train Bond Act, makes these subsidies illegal. A conundrum that the Legislature, the Administration, and the CHSRA have so far successfully ignored.

Triumphalism Indeed

For years I have argued that most high-speed rail makes no sense economically -- that in fact it is an example of the political impulse towards triumphalism.  Government leaders through the ages have wanted to use other people's money and sweat to build vast monuments to themselves that would last through the ages.

I meant that as ridicule, and assumed most readers would recognize it as such, but apparently not the LA Times, which editorialized in favor of California high speed rail in part because its just like the pyramids

Worthwhile things seldom come without cost or sacrifice. That was as true in ancient times as it is now; pharaoh Sneferu, builder of Egypt's first pyramids, had to try three times before he got it right, with the first two either collapsing under their own weight or leaning precipitously. But who remembers that now? Not many people have heard of Sneferu, but his pyramids and those of his successors are wonders of the world.

As a reminder, this is what I wrote at the article linked above in Forbes

What is it about intellectuals that seem to, generation after generation, fall in love with totalitarian regimes because of their grand and triumphal projects?  Whether it was the trains running on time in Italy, or the Moscow subways, or now high-speed rail lines in China, western dupes constantly fall for the lure of the great pyramid without seeing the diversion of resources and loss of liberty that went into building it.

The Ultimate End of Social-Democratic Labor Policy

When a country

  • Increases the minimum wage, and therefore the minimum skill / productivity needed for a job
  • Adds substantially to the costs of labor through required taxes, insurance premiums, pensions, etc
  • Makes employees virtually un-fireable, thus forcing companies to think twice about hiring young, unproven employees they may be saddled with, good or bad, for decades
  • Puts labor policy in the hands of people who already have jobs (ie unions)
  • Shift wealth via social security and medical programs from the young to the old

It gets this

 

The bitterly ironic part is that when these folks hit the streets in mass protests, it will likely be for more of the same that put them there in the first place.

 
Want to argue that such policies are hurting workers rather than helping?  Good luck, at least in Italy

Pietro Ichino, a professor of labor law at the University of Milan and a senator in the Italian legislature, is known as the author of several “neoliberal” books and studies recommending that the Italian government relax its extraordinarily stringent regulation of employers’ hiring and firing decisions. As Bloomberg Business Week reports, that means that Prof. Ichino must fear for his life: “For the past 10 years, the academic and parliamentarian has lived under armed escort, traveling exclusively by armored car, and almost never without the company of two plainclothes policemen. The protection is provided by the Italian government, which has reason to believe that people want to murder Ichino for his views.”

Memo to US:  Don't get cocky, you are going down the same path

 Update:  Interesting and sort of related from Megan McArdle

An apparent paradox that frequently puzzles journalists is that Europeans work fewer hours than workers in the United States, while in some countries, hourly productivity appears to be the same, or even higher, than that of American workers.
This is not actually a paradox at all.  Much of the decline in European hours worked per-capita came in the form of unemployment.  Rigid labor laws which make it hard to fire (and thus, risky to hire) shut less productive workers out of the market, particularly the young, and those who had been displaced due to disruptive industry change.  So does anything that raises the cost of labor, like, er, loads of mandatory vacation and leave.  When you exclude your least productive workers from the labor force, your measured hourly productivity will be higher, particularly if you use metrics like GDP per hours worked.

Flash: European Finances Still Screwed Up

As I predicted, the various highly touted European debt and currency interventions last month did squat.  This is no surprise.  The basic plan currently is to have the ECB give essentially 0% loans to banks with the implied provision that they use the money to buy sovereign debt.  Eventually there are provisions for austerity, but I wrote that I don't think it's possible these will be effective.   It's a bit unclear where this magic money of the ECB is coming from - either they are printing money (which they refuse to own up to because the Germans fear money printing even more than Soviet tanks in the Fulda Gap) or there is some kind of leverage circle-jerk game going where the ECB is effectively leveraging deposits and a few scraps of funding to the moon.

At this point, short of some fiscal austerity which simply is not going to happen, I can't see how the answer is anything but printing and devaluation.  Either the ECB prints, spreading the cost of inflation to all counties on the Euro, or Greece/Spain/Italy exit the Euro and then print for themselves.

The exercise last month, as well as the months before that, are essentially mass hypnosis spectacles, engineered to try to get the markets to forget the underlying fundamentals.  And the amazing part is it sort of works, from two days to two weeks.  It reminds me of nothing so much as the final chapters of Atlas Shrugged where officials do crazy stuff to put off the reckoning even one more day.

Disclosure:  I have never, ever been successful at market timing investments or playing individual stocks, so I generally don't.  But the last few months I have had fun shorting European banks and financial assets on the happy-hypnosis news days and covering once everyone wakes up.  About the only time in my life I have made actual trading profits.

Thought problem:  I wish I understood the incentives facing European banks.  It seems like right now to be almost a reverse cartel, where the cartel holds tightly because there is a large punishment for cheating.  Specifically, any large bank that jumps off the merry-go-round described above likely starts the whole thing collapsing and does in its own balance sheet (along with everyone else's).  The problem is that every day they hang on, the stakes get higher and their balance sheets get stuffed with more of this crap.  Ironically, everyone would have been better getting off a year ago and taking the reckoning then, and certainly everyone would be better taking the hit now rather than later, but no one is willing to jump off.  One added element that makes the game interesting is that the first bank to jump off likely earns the ire of the central bankers, perhaps making that bank the one bank that is not bailed out when everything crashes.  It's a little like the bidding game where the highest bidder wins but the two highest bidders have to pay.  Anyone want to equate this with a defined economics game please do so in the comments.

Also From the "This Time We Really, Really Mean It" Files

Apparently European leaders are close to an agreement that countries cannot run budget deficits higher than 3% of GDP.  If you are left to wonder, "hey, didn't they already have that rule before" the answer is yes.  Everyone had to promise a really, really stern oath not to run higher deficits before joining in the Euro group.

Of course, these promises meant nothing as there was no penalty for breaking the promise, and so the EU is proposing a new enforcement mechanism

Governments whose debts exceeded three percent of their GDP would be cited by the European Court of Justice, after which a super-majority of 85 percent of European governments would have to agree to impose some sort of sanction against the offending country.

I am not clear if the 85% is of the whole EU  (which would require a vote of 23 of the 27 members) or of just the Euro zone (which would require 15 of the 17 countries that use the Euro as currency).  Either way, I disagree with Drum and can't see how there is any hope at all here.  I am left with a number of questions

  • What is the likelihood that European countries will adopt this Constitutional provision and precedent for reduced sovereignty?  Don't treaty changes have to be unanimous?
  • Even if ratified, does anyone imagine the penalties will be high?  Imagine Greece today if such penalties exist.  How much are they going to worry about fines when they are already bankrupt?  And what will be the optics of the EU adding new costs to countries that are in financial crisis?  If a country in the future is doing things to endanger the euro from too much debt, the last thing the EU is going to be able to do is add to that country's burdens -- in fact, it is doing the opposite now, sending huge checks to all these countries
  • How are they every going to get the votes when this comes up?  Again, think about today.  Would Italy, Belgium, Spain, Ireland, etc. vote to sanction Greece, when they know they are next?

I just can't see this going anywhere.  And I would be surprised if the folks involved do either.  My guess is that they hope this will settle the bond markets so they can kick the can down the road.  Sure, we will have to deal with this all over again the first, inevitable time a country breaches the 3%, but that is later and right now they will accept a few years, even a few months, of survival.

Over the Cliff, My Fellow Lemmings!

I found this 2009 graph and comment by Paul Krugman (dredged up by Megan McArdle) to be a hilarious call to arms for all his fellow lemmings to follow him over the cliff

DESCRIPTION

[from November 2009]:  Why, people ask, would I want to compare us to Belgium and Italy? Both countries are a mess!

Um, guys, that's the point. Belgium is politically weak because of the linguistic divide; Italy is politically weak because it's Italy. If these countries can run up debts of more than 100 percent of GDP without being destroyed by bond vigilantes, so can we.

Today I spent time arguing with a group of folks about global warming and the precautionary principle.  The others all argued that a slim chance of a catastrophe justified immediate action.  I argued, of course, that they were understating the cost of the intervention, but that is another story.

Its amazing to me that so many on the Left squawk about the precautionary principle in the case of climate, but are ready to continue running up government spending and deficits despite the fact that the disaster of this approach, given the experience in Europe, is no longer even debatable.  Its simply math.

Our problem will play out differently than in Europe.  Long before interest rates on US securities run up to the 6% or so tipping point, the Fed will be running the printing presses.  Don't believe me, well, they already have been.

Savers beware, our path will be devaluation and inflation.

By the way, the speed with which hyperinflation can take hold is astounding.  Here is the inflation rate in the Weimar Republic.  As with the Fed today, the central bank of the Weimar Republic was buying up government debt with printed currency.  Look how fast the inflation took hold:

(source)  Imagine a quarterly meeting of the Fed in August of '22.  They are probably looking at month-old data, and in July it looks like everything is under control.  Boom, three months later, by the next schedule quarterly meeting, inflation is already out of control.  Krugman would say not to worry about inflation, they will have plenty of time to act.  Coincidently, this is exactly what Italy and France and Spain said about their sovereign debt, but in a flash, the crisis was upon them and so far out of control there is nothing they can do.

Italy Going Down the Drain. So Who Is Next?

via

 

Its amazing how many people can shake their heads in despair at the European debt crisis and then continue urging the US to do exactly the same things that got the Europeans into this mess.

Good News, I Hope

I have to take this with a grain of salt, because it is coming from GE, the current American poster-child for rent-seeking, particularly in attempting to be a magnet for green energy subsidies.   But since the statement can be seen as under-cutting the subsidy argument, I have to take it more seriously:

Solar power may be cheaper than electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear reactors within three to five years because of innovations, said Mark M. Little, the global research director for General Electric Co.

“If we can get solar at 15 cents a kilowatt-hour or lower, which I’m hopeful that we will do, you’re going to have a lot of people that are going to want to have solar at home,” Little said yesterday in an interview in Bloomberg’s Washington office.

....GE, based in Fairfield, Connecticut, announced in April that it had boosted the efficiency of thin-film solar panels to a record 12.8 percent....The cost of solar cells, the main component in standard panels, has fallen 21 percent so far this year, and the cost of solar power is now about the same as the rate utilities charge for conventional power in the sunniest parts of California, Italy and Turkey.

I am all for that.  I have always had faith that solar would make sense someday, and that we would be ranking out cheap solar conversion surfaces like carpet out of Dalton, Georgia, but every time I have priced it to date on my house, even with huge government subsidies, it has not made sense.    In Europe, it requires 50-60 cent feed in tariffs (basically a subsidy in the form of above-market electricity prices paid by the utility for solar-sourced electricity) to get solar capacity installed, so 15-cents would be great and is approaching the cost of electricity in some high cost areas.

Here in Phoenix, FirstSolar does a ton of thin film.  I have always had mixed feelings about FirstSolar.  On the one hand, they live off subsidies and would basically not be in business if it were not for huge European subsidies of various forms.  On the other, though, they have been one of the few solar companies that actively have talked for years of a development path to a cost position that does not require subsidies.

You Thought I Was Joking About Dictator Retirement Island

Via the Guardian

Efforts appear to be under way to offer Muammar Gaddafi a way of escape from Libya, with Italy saying it was trying to organise an African haven for him, and the US signalling it would not try to stop the dictator from fleeing....

A senior American official signalled that a solution in which Gaddafi flees to a country beyond the reach of the international criminal court (ICC), which is investigating war crimes charges against him, would be acceptable to Washington, pointing out that Barack Obama had repeatedly called on Gaddafi to leave.

Seen and Unseen

Every time you see a politician claiming he created jobs with some expenditure of taxpayer money, you have to ask yourself, what would private investors have done with that money had it not been taken away from them?  Via John Stossel

In a new article, "The Myth of Green Energy Jobs: The European Experience", the environmental scientist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute writes,

"Green programs in Spain destroyed 2.2 jobs for every green job created, while the capital needed for one green job in Italy could create almost five jobs in the general economy."

Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.

Our Arizona Governor is Truly Lame

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona has been insisting for MONTHS that immigrants have been beheading people in the desert.  I wrote about it here,  shande doubled down on the claim in way back in June.   She repeated the claim on a televised debate the other day, and got all the national attention on this idiotic claim that she deserves.  She has reiterated this close-to-outright-racist-paranoid-fantasy any number of times through the whole summer.  So it is grossly disingenuous for her suddenly to act like it was a one-time mis-statement:

Gov. Jan Brewer rose to national fame defending the state's immigration law and warning of rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, including a claim that headless bodies were turning up in the Arizona desert.

But the claim has come back to haunt her after her stammering debate performance in which she failed to back it up and ignored repeated questions on the issue from a scrum of reporters.

Brewer has spent the time since backtracking and trying to repair the damage done from her cringe-worthy debate against underdog challenger Terry Goddard.

"That was an error, if I said that," the Republican told the Associated Press on Friday. "I misspoke, but you know, let me be clear, I am concerned about the border region because it continues to be reported in Mexico that there's a lot of violence going on and we don't want that going into Arizona."

That is as craven and mendacious a response as I have ever heard from a politician, and that is saying a lot (it had to be, to bet me worked up enough to blog from a seaside resort in Italy).

More Italy

After several more days and locations (Florence, Cinqueterre via Portovenere) I am left with one question:  Why is it that even supposedly elegant European hotels charging many hundreds of Euros a night for a room are oblivious to the quality of their beds?  I am getting tired of paying tons of cash for rooms with bed linens whose quality is measured in "grit" rather than "threadcount."  The beds are uncomfortable and the pillows are awful.   The blankets are sick polyester jokes that Motel 6 would be embarrassed to offer.  For the price of just one night's room rent I could go to IKEA and outfit the rooms better.  It's not like I am some spoiled princess-and-the-pea sleeper -- I stay in a lot of cheap hotels and I tent camp, for god sakes.  My camping equipment is more comfortable than these beds.  I routinely stay in $70 hotels in the US and never get beds or linens this bad.  Do they not care, or is this what Europeans all sleep on at home?

OK, rant over.  Florence was as great as it always is.  There is way too much stuff to do there ever to get bored, all within just a few minutes walking.   Unlike past visits, we entirely skipped the Uffizi and hit a lot of historic buildings we had missed before (e.g. Medici Palace).  I enjoyed it but if you are on your first visit, the Uffizi is a must.  Also saw a bit of above-average engineering, like this:

Seriously, I wonder if I could have -- without a)  any kind of materials strength data base; b) no structural steel or modern concrete; c) no CAD facility -- designed and built such a thing in the 1400s, even with the Pantheon as a go-by to copy.  Really remarkable.

In Florence, there is a famous bridge called the Ponte Vecchio which is actually covered in buildings:

You can't tell from this picture, but the bridge (open only to pedestrian traffic) is lined with at least 40 jewelry stores.  Seriously, each storefront has bout 6 feet of space, and every one had a window with zillions of gold trinkets.  It got me thinking about the paradox of choice.  It's not hard to buy into the economic theory that too much choice may inhibit purchase while walking along this bridge, though I am told most of these folks do very well (I have never bought into the paradox of choice as social theory -- the one that says people would be happier with fewer choices.  If this were true, we would all be emigrating to North Korea).

Speaking of pedestrian streets, one important takeaway from Italy has been that one should never assume a road is too narrow, even if it is no wider than your pantry door, for a vehicle to come racing through any second.  The other day I was in a really narrow alley I thought was foot-traffic-only when a bus(!) came screaming down the lane like a piston through a cylinder.  Only a well-located doorway got me out of the way, and even then the bus's mirror clipped my arm.

The last few days we have been staying at the port town of Portovenere on the Italian Riviera.

The town itself is attractive with a fair amount to explore for its size.  I experimented some with night photography from my room

I have some other exposures that I want to try with HDR software to try to bring out a bit more of the buildings.   The town was kind of fun on a Saturday night -- in addition to a couple of rowdy weddings, there were also a lot of BIG boats that came in for dinner in the evening.  Very nice (except for my bed).

Portovenere is a convenient gateway to the Cinqueterre, five absurdly picturesque downs laid down in about 1100 AD by Walt Disney to attract American tourists.  You may have not heard their names, but you have likely seen one or all of them the last time you were at an art fair in one of the photo exhibits -- here is one example (though they had the patience to wait for a time of day where the lighting was better, presumably in the early morning).

More than the towns, I enjoyed the walking trail in between, which is an attraction in and of itself.  It winds through wilderness and vineyards along the coast.  All through the vineyards I kept seeing what looked like a guide rail for some sort of gear-driven device.  The rail wound up and down the hills and through the vineyards.  I had assumed that it was some sort of irrigation system where the sprinkler moved along the rail (though I could not figure out how the water supply would work).  Then I found this absolutely awesome piece of steampunk-style tech:

It is hard to tell, but its a little one-person monorail that rides on the rail and pulls a couple of carts behind the "engine."  This is why I could not find any roads or really many trails in the vineyards -- they use these cool things to move about, do maintenance, and bring in the crop presumably.  And the rail does not run on the ground, but 4-5 feet in the air, so one can see over all the vines and brush.  Totally awesome.  And not a seatbelt to be found on it, which made me love it all the more.   I loved it so much, here is another shot head-on (sorry it is overexposed, I don't have the energy to edit it right now).

Thoughts on Milan

I don't promise posts every day or even any other day of the trip, but since I have a quiet moment, and my wife is writing in her diary, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

  • Milan is way underrated as a tourist spot, at least for a day or two.  It has the reputation of being a cold industrial town, and much of it may be that way, but the center of the city is quite nice to visit.  It was a legitimate rival to Florence and Venice in the Italian Renaissance.  Lots of good shopping, some good tourist sites, and the streets, particularly at night, are great to walk around.  The weather is wonderful, which helps.
  • Single impression I will hold from Milan:  Very attractive women dressed to the nines in chic outfits wearing 5-inch heels -- all while riding a bicycle.  They are all over the place.  And as for the overall rating for the lady-watching, I don't think any spot will surpass Buenos Aires in my book (with Beverly Hills probably as a #2) but Milan very much held its own in that department.
  • Stayed at the Park Hyatt on points (thank God because it is really expensive).  This is one great hotel, in a fabulous location with the best service I have ever received.
  • If you are coming to Milan, fly into Linate rather than Malpensa if you can -- the difference in time to the center of town is about an hour.
  • Milan is a great place to start your trip in norther Italy.  One can fly here from about any where in the world and they have fast, cheap trains that go everywhere in Italy.
  • Speaking of trains, don't ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  I bought one out of habit (the Swiss pass is awesome) and because last time I drove in Italy my car was hit 3 times in 1 week.  But train travel in Italy is so cheap that the pass is not worth it, and almost every good train requires a reservation (and reservation fee) which defeats the "just walk on the train" advantage of the pass.  Also, as an American, the Trenitalia web site is endlessly frustrating, and won't accept most American credit cards, so the only way you can reserve a train in advance (which you must do) is to trudge to a travel agency or train station in Italy.  You can do it from a few US web sites but they add on huge fees.
  • The Cathedral (Duomo) in Milan was right next to our hotel and is the 3rd or 4th largest in Europe.  I found it kind of unexceptional, except for its size (and perhaps the beautifully sculpted front doors).  The interior highlight is probably the large stained glass windows (OK and the body of the saint lying in a room whose design looks like it was pulled right out of the haunted mansion ride at Disneyworld was interesting too).  However, there is one other thing unique about the Duomo that was fun -- you can go up and walk on the roof.  Not just go up in a tower, but walk all over the roof and in between the flying buttresses.  Great view and enjoyable

  • The Sforza Castle, for all its history, is about the bleakest and most overtly military building I have ever seen produced by the Italian Renaissance.  But probably appropriate for their history, given that the Sforza's were top generals to the Milanese Dukes before they took over the succession, and Milan was really home for the Renaissance era defense industry.
  • The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele is is a great Victorian-style glassed arcade near the Duomo.  The structure is cool but unfortunately there is not really anything inside to do it justice.

  • Took a lot of 3-shot photo series with a bracketing of low to high exposures so I could play with some new High Dynamic Range imaging software. This kind of scene above, with lots of texture in the buildings that gets washed out by the sunlight from the glass dome, hopefully will work well.  I will report on results.
  • On to Florence today, where we have a beautiful deck overlooking the Arno and Ponte Veccio and views from the rooftop restaurant all around Florence.  At least if the goofball in the black shirt would stop jumping in front of the camera.

Gone

I am heading for Italy for two weeks.  No blogging planned except perhaps some photo-blogging.  I expect you guys to have this country straightened out by the time I get back.

New York Takes a Cue From Italy

Via the NY Daily News:

The race for governor just got a whole lot sexier.

"Manhattan Madam" Kristin Davis is tossing her lacy brassiere into the political ring - with the help of one of the GOP's most fearsome strategists.

Though he's often labeled a "trickster," former Nixon, Reagan and Bushes operative Roger Stone tells us he's dead serious about getting Davis on the ballot.

"This is not a hoax, a prank or a publicity stunt," said Stone, who has been quietly huddling with Davis for months. "I want to get her a half-million votes."

I love this:

Davis laid out her credentials last weekend at a Libertarian Party convention on the lower East Side.

"I was valedictorian of my high-school class," said the golden-tressed Davis, sporting a modest black suit but wicked Christian Louboutins with 5-inch heels. "I worked 10 years in finance. I was vice president of a hedge fund. I went on to build a multimillion-dollar business from scratch."

While branding "taxation as confiscation," the former escort empress said the legalization of prostitution and marijuana could provide $2.5 billion in revenue to help close the budget gap.

"I'm a natural Libertarian," said Davis, who also embraces gay marriage and the views of the National Rifle Association.

And here is some great political strategy:

Even though she needs only 15,000 signatures to get on the ballot, she's shooting for 45,000 - and Stone doesn't see any problem getting them.

"Kristin knows lots of Penthouse Pets," he said. "We'll get four, make them notary publics and have them, suitably attired, collecting signatures at Grand Central Station during rush hour."

More on the European Economic Model

Yesterday I posted on the irony that in the name of "change" and "dynamism," the Democrats are pushing for what basically is an inherently more conservative (little-c), less dynamic economic system that mirrors that of many continental European countries.

Daniel, an American reader who does quite a bit of work in Europe, wrote me:

1) The static nature of the Euro mentality assigns a high cost to ... people ... who try to break the mold. Cost of failure is relatively high. In Italy if your small business declares bankruptcy, you forfeit the right to vote.

2) In Germany, workers are sorted at an early age into "blue collar schools" and "professional schools". I know from my youth, if I had grown up in Germany instead of America, I probably would not be a consultant but more like a janitor (not that there is anything wrong with janitors...).

3) Social services in Europe are hit and miss. In Germany, many people carry private insurance despite the availability of public insurance because of the lack of quality.

4) (this may be a good thing) Italian school children go through a less harsh puberty than American kids. Society has drilled into them that it's not cool to be different, so there are less cliques. When I share my experiences in school with most Europeans they usually make some snide remark about how growing up in a battle zone (primary school) has caused the Iraq war.

5) Highly skilled workers are in many cases no better paid than unskilled staff. In the south of Italy a senior programmer may make 2K euros per month. A secretary might make 1.5K a month. If it weren't for most Europeans fear of moving to new cities, there would be no programmers to hire.

6) Speaking of being afraid to move, many Europeans find the thought of moving to a different city complete alien concept.

7) Life in Euro is a much more comfortable than in America *if* you are European. If you are an immigrant, forget it. After two years of pitching companies in the South of Italy, I have never seen a black person be more than a street side vendor of trinkets. In Italy, there is an unsaid rule that you must be an Italian to ever be a professional.

8) Don't get me started on France.

9) It is illegal for a business to stay open more than it's quota in most European countries. It is illegal to operate a barber shop on Mondays.

Roosevelt and Mussolini

I have elaborated a number of times on the parallels between the National Recovery Act and Mussolini-style fascism, as well as the frank admiration Roosevelt had for what Mussolini was doing in Italy.

David Boaz goes into much more detail

Roosevelt himself called Mussolini "admirable" and professed that he
was "deeply impressed by what he has accomplished." The admiration was
mutual. In a laudatory review of Roosevelt's 1933 book Looking Forward,
Mussolini wrote, "Reminiscent of Fascism is the principle that the
state no longer leaves the economy to its own devices."¦Without
question, the mood accompanying this sea change resembles that of
Fascism." The chief Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter,
repeatedly praised "Roosevelt's adoption of National Socialist strains
of thought in his economic and social policies" and "the development
toward an authoritarian state" based on the "demand that collective
good be put before individual self-interest."

When Did We Start to Fear Speech?

I feel like it is time for one of those unpopular libertarian rants that piss everyone off.   As with the last time this issue came up, I just don't understand what we fear so much letting Iranian dictator Amadinejad speak on American soil.  I am absolutely all for letting people put themselves on the record in the clearest possible way.  McQ over at Q&O is a smart guy I often agree with, but his core assumption seems to be that an invitation from Columbia University somehow confers some legitimacy on an otherwise egregious world leader.  How?  I am not sure the Columbia name even confers much legitimacy on its faculty.  The only thing the decision communicates to me is that Columbia, the university that didn't allow presentation of the Mohammad cartoons and that allows speakers to be manhandled off the stage, is deeply confused about speech issues on campus.

Information is always useful.  Would I have allowed Hitler to speak in the US in the 1930's?  Hell yes!  I wish he had gone on a 20-city speaking tour.  Hitler couldn't help but telegraph his true intentions every time he spoke.  Hell, he wrote it all down in a book if people would have paid attention.  But what if he didn't?  What if he convinced all America he was peaceful?  Even then it would have been useful.  Intelligent media (if there are any left) could then compare and contrast what he said at home vs. what he said in the US, much like a few folks do with Muslim clerics, comparing their English and Arabic speeches.  Further, folks would have immediately seen Hitler was lying in September of 1939, and, knowing Americans, they would have been more pissed off at him for being lied to.  Further, it would be fabulous to have quotes form Mussolini, touring eastern US cities, praising the New Deal and the NRA, much of which was modeled on his program in Italy.

What about, as Roger Simon asks:

I have a question for the Columbia crowd, since Holocaust deniers are
welcome, would you allow a speaker in favor of a return to black
slavery? I hope not. Well, that's how I feel about Holocaust deniers.

Absolutely I would.  If there was a prominent person who advocated the return to black slavery, I would want that person on the record in public.  I would love to listen to see what kind of supporters he thought he had, and, perhaps more importantly, to see who reacted favorably to him.   You have to pull these guys up into the sunlight and show the world how distasteful they are.

Update:

During the 1930s, "one of the things we really lacked in this country
was sufficient contact with Nazis to realize what they are up to," said
Harvey Silverglate, a prominent civil rights attorney who has sharply
criticized higher education for failing to support free speech on
campus. The notion "that you're going to take really awful people and
not listen to them is really suicidal for any society."

State Run Medicine: Bureaucrat Salaries Trump Patients

Italian Daniele Capezzone writes in the WSJ($):

This situation is especially dire in Italy. The
government has capped spending on pharmaceuticals at 13% of total
health-care expenditures while letting expenses for infrastructure and
staff skyrocket. From 2001 to 2005, general health expenses in Italy
grew by 31% while expenditure on medicines increased a mere 1.7%.
Italian patients might well have been better off if the reverse was the
case, but the state bureaucrats who make these decisions refuse to
acknowledge the benefits of advanced drugs....

Part of the problem is that regional authorities
manage most of Italy's health-care spending. A strike by health-care
personnel has an immediate impact on the region, but the consequences
of cutting the budget for medicines are only felt in the long term and
distributed across the nation. Hence, local authorities continue to
focus on personnel and infrastructure in an age when medical research
has become the most efficient way to improve public health.

Gee, government officials more concerned about raising government salaries than performance?  Couldn't possibly happen in the US, could it?  This is classic government management -- freeze or reduce expenses that actually provide customer service, and raise administrative costs and salaries many times faster than inflation.  This is exactly what has happened in public schools, as infrastructure and teaching aid investments have been deferred in favor of raising salaries and adding untold number of vice-principals and administrators to every school.

But the government is focused on the long-term while greedy old for-profits are short-term focused.  Right?

Unfortunately, most of today's cutting-edge research is conducted
outside Europe, which was once a pioneer in this field. About 78% of
global biotechnology research funds are spent in the U.S., compared to
just 16% in Europe. Americans therefore have better access to modern
drugs. One result is that in the U.S., the annual death rate from
cancer is 196 per 100,000 people, compared to 235 in Britain, 244 in
France, 270 in Italy and 273 in Germany.

Update:  Ronald Bailey points out that drug re importation is just a way to impose drug price controls in the US, effectively applying the most aggressive price-control regime for each drug worldwide to US prices.  Right now, drug companies tolerate price controls set as much as 2/3 under US prices or more because they can still make money at the margin, because the marginal cost of drug production is so much lower than the total cost with R&D, etc. included.  However, they cannot survive at these prices applied to US demand.  Remember, drug companies have profits margins averaging in the 18-20% range.  Perhaps you might argue they should only be making 10%, but that only gives you room for an imposed 10% price cut, not the huge cuts politicians would like.  And you would get that only at tremendous costs in terms of lost freedoms and demolished incentives for new drug development.