April 28, 2005

Assorted Annoyances 

This morning I thought of a post about explosives, and it's almost all ready in my mind; I just have to write it down (for you readers avid of prohibited knowledge).

But I can't make it today, probably: I have to do quite a lot of things for my research work - today it was replacing the stem seals of a high-pressure valve, among other things.

But the whole day was perturbed by strange facts: this morning I took the bus, and at a certain point and elderly black lady started accusing me of being involved in witchcraft (I cannot really tell on what basis). The whole thing was so surreal that I did not know what to answer, and it's not my habit to be rude to people who are only a bit annoying. At least, she dropped the matter in a little while.

Then, the bus called at a stop in front of some ten bobbies and three or four London Buses fare inspectors, who checked a few people on the bus, made them deboard and talk to the police. I'm not sure, but it is possible the driver was fined for not checking the tickets properly or something like that.

I also have a cold, not terrible but less than comfortable. However, what is really giving me hell is a pulled muscle: my right gluteus (aka asscheek - I pulled it at karate last Tuesday). It's true that you do not know how important are certain things until they cease working: I never paid so much attention to the role of the gluteus muscle(s), but now I realize it's involved in almost all movements of the upper leg. In practice, it hurts everytime I move. Going up and down steps is a torture, and I should just stay in bed. The problem is that I cannot really afford to stay at complete rest. Dammit.

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April 26, 2005

Small Update 

I added two new blogs to my sidebar: A blog for all and I Love America: they're basically on the same side as me, and I also want to reciprocate their linking to The Italian Version.

From the Funny Referrals Department, my blog has been linked to in a German militaria forum for providing an explanation on the composition of the military explosive amatol (amatolo in Italian). Also, someone visited here with a search for "recycling pet mohammed": I'm almost stunned; what the hell has the Prophet to do with recycling of PET???

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April 25, 2005

25 Aprile 

Stavo per dimenticare che oggi é la Festa della Liberazione, in ricordo del giorno, 60 anni fa, quando l'Italia fu finalmente liberata dall'oppressione nazi-fascista.

Stefania di Free Thoughts ha scritto un articolo un poco piú elaborato (in English, too), che rispecchia quasi esattamente i miei sentimenti per il 25 Aprile.

Ora sto giá scaricando Fratelli D'Italia, e piú tardi faró un brindisi!

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A Call To Action 

The vile and anti-Israel play My Name Is Rachel Corrie is now playing at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre, London and it will play until April 30.

There is not much time left, but inspired by Charles Johnson, I call all decent Londoners to meet and protest this vileness.

Those interested, please drop me a mail.

Update 29/04 1305Z: Ok folks, it's Friday afternoon and I got no responses to my Call to Action. So the whole thing is busted, I won't go protesting by myself.

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April 24, 2005

Heavy Metal 

Heavy metal is a musical genre born in the 70s, mainly from the works of bands such as Led Zeppelin, AC/DC (but these bands weren't so heavy), and properly Motorhead, Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath - although each one of these bands had a different approach.

The distinctive traits of heavy metal are the use of distorted electric guitar, in an evolution of the style pioneered by Jimi Hendrix; fast, hard drumwork with abundant use of double pedal (Motorhead and Judas Priest were real fanatics of this device) and often raw vocals. This is very generalistic, tho, because sub-genres can be very slow (like doom, which had a brief life in Britain in the early 90s) but still heavy, while Manowar are often fast but do not rank very high on a heavyness scale.

Then the genre prospered and evolved, and in the late 80s, propelled by the huge success of Metallica, Megadeth and Iron Maiden almost became mainstream - almost, because Metal always lacked that something to make it widely accepted. Maybe because metalheads have a scarcely palatable image, with truculent black T-shirts, boots and leather jackets. Or because its very sound is too heavy for most ears.
Iron Maiden are a particular case, anyway: they had a huge, huge success in Italy, so much that the Maidens themselves adopted some looks of the Italian metalheads. And also, Iron Maiden are about the band with the most references to pop(ular) culture you can find - Where Eagles Dare, The Prisoner. But not just that: another song is a renewed version of the poem The Rhyme Of The Ancient Mariner, and you can even find an Alexander The Great in their discography. No, they're not satanists either: the famous song The Number Of The Beast is inspired by a nightmare.

In the mid 80s, anyway, more extreme forms of Metal emerged: thrash, following (and evolving) Metallica, and Death Metal which rose from the swamps of Florida.
An archetypal thrash band are Slayer: extreme speed and very heavy riffs, plus vocals more similar to screams of anger and fury than anything. And lyrics which deal with themes most normal folks prefer to leave untouched - see Angel Of Death for example.
Thrash was born in the USA, but soon good bands emerged all over the world: Sepultura from Brazil (shame Sepultura were quite on the lefty-moonbat side regarding politics, because their music truly kicked ass) and the German triad Sodom-Kreator-Tankard that ravaged Europe with raw thrash (and uncounted liters of beer). Sodom are a band quite obsessed with military themes, and curiously enough they had a noticeable success in the war-torn ex-Jugoslavia (I remeber seeing on TV the logo Sodom sprayed on a bullet-ridden wall somewhere in that country)

But Death Metal brought things to an even higher (or lower, if your prefer) level: the first band of this kind were probably Death (what a coincidence) with their album Leprosy: to the fast and heavy riffs they added a growling voice describing in detail the effects of leprosy (and featuring the drawing of a leper on the cover).

For some reason, a lot of Death Metal bands come out of Florida: Obituary, one of the heaviest of the lot; Morbid Angel, Deicide, Malevolent Creation, Cannibal Corpse and more - if you suspect that some of these have a fascination for Satan & co. you're right.
The staple of Death is growling voice - that goes from an angry, raw voice to an unintelligible low-keyed continuous growl; the masters of which are Obituary and Cannibal Corpse (plus the spin-off bands Nile and Six Feet Under). The lyrics of these bands can be crazy, sick or even fun - in a certain way.
While these Floridians basically had a good time, the British Carcass were equally brutal, but grimmer... or maybe was it just British humor? Come on, "ultimate excretion of rabid globular neoplasm" cannot be serious.

The first two Carcass albums, and the works of their mates Napalm Death (who are much more committed in a political sense), gave birth to the extreme genre known as Grindcore: fast and brutal, growling and short songs about death, decay, rotting and such. A truly genial Grindcore band are Anal Cunt: they just growl, saying nothing or short silly sentences like "Shut Up Mike". 40 - 60 songs per CD, and alot of fun just reading the titles.
Also porno-grind does exist, and as you may have imagined their short lyrics are XXX-rated, same as the covers of their CDs (no, I'm not an expert of this stuff).

The people of northern Europe, probably affected by a lack of sunlight, gave birth to another genre, known as Black Metal. The roots of it probably can be found in Venom - a band from Newcastle, about as rough as working class northern englishmen can be and explicitely satanist (and absolutely lacking any musical skill). These crazed Norwegians took things one step further, with obscure, obsessive music (also fast and technical, often), sick lyrics, haunted voices and pagan cults. They also took a lot of names from The Lord Of The Rings - of the bad guys, of course. When I say sick, I mean it: Mayhem's singer killed himself, and the other guys in the band found the picture of his blown brains fit for a CD cover. Burzum (aka Count Grishnack) was so much into his stuff that he torched a couple of churches and finally killed another black metaller and ended up in jail. And other folks of the gang had similar stories. The black metal phenomenon is marginal nowadays, and most of the bands are nice guys who wear pentagrams and truculent face-painting only when on stage.

Also death metal found a sizable following in Sweden, and it was re-adapted to a more melodic and technical from by Dark Tranquillity, At The Gates, In Flames. At The Gates are one of my favourite bands, but sadly they were deep into post-modernist and existentialist stuff, sigh. But the pedalwork on Blinded By Fear is still awesome.

This is just a rapid exposition of the whole Metal scene - I left off the new (and silly) sensations of new metal and crossover, the likes of Linkin' Park, Limp Bizkit and Korn.
But I don't like that stuff anyway. There are also bands with a special status, like Motorhead, AC/DC, Kiss: they became so legendary to be something apart. But I'm never been a fan of Kiss - I only like God Of Thunder. However, Kiss were the first ones to use face painting (probably). There are fringe bands, like the Italian Death SS (where SS stands for Steve Silvestri, the founder) that became (in)famous for having skimpy but fat lesbian dancers performing a chicken sacrifice on stage... yes, Metal gigs can be really weird at times.

Let's see, Pantera's singer Phil Anselmo sometimes walked on stage so drunk (if not on high) he could barely speak, and at one concert they projected marijuana leaves around the hall with spotlights (not that the crowd needed any encouragement to use said herb). Cradle Of Filth had a performer grinding her steel thong with an angle grinder on stage.
A band called Zyklon B (feel free to feel outraged) is deeply into leather feticism and recorded the worst and most hideous album I've ver had the displeasure of listening.
Manowar... well, what can you say of people who ride Harley Davidson and pose wielding swords and wearing cowskin panties, and sing things such as "Other bands play, Manowar kill" or "Wheels Of Fire Burn The Night Ride Across The Sky"? Just try to listen to them once: you may either be raptured or repelled, eh...

But, from a sociological standpoint, Metal is the music of Western White Men - and in fact, some bands are strongly in the right wing (even too right, occasionally). Metal was born in Britain and the USA, and all the founders were basically white - and not shy of their whiteness. Megadeth's singer Dave Mustaine sports a T-shirts with barred hammer&sickle on the back cover of their So Far So Good... So What! album and one of their songs says: "What do you mean, "I couldn't be president, of the United States of America"? Tell me something, it's still "We the people", right? [Chorus: (repeat)]If there's a new wayI'll be the first in line,But, it better work this time.". Kinda constitutionalist, I'd say.

Of course there are metal fans and musicians of any colour, but not so many. I've seen a Sikh guy with his turban and a metal t-shirt, tho. Other places where Metal has a sizable following are south America and Japan - which is the most open to western influences of Asian countries. Quite a few metal bands also are openly and definitely on the left, so one cannot honestly say that Metal is monolithic a fascist. Still, Metal remains a realm where political correctness gained almost no footing, and it's much better this way.

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April 21, 2005

Not Friends, Almost Enemies 

If you followed my blog, you'd know I do not have a very high opinion of France, especially of her foreign policy. I'm too lazy right now to round up links, but it's well known that France sided with a long string of thugs and other bad guys, the last examples being Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat. Now France offered her support to China, too, saying in the person of the premier Raffarin that China's anti-secession (of Taiwan) law "is completely compatible with the position of France". And there you go.

One wonders, does that law have UN legitimation? Is it "multilateral"? Is it "nuanced" and "non-imperialist"? You know, apparently France stood for all these things, when it was useful to oppose the USA.

It's time to stop pretending France is a friend or even an ally of the USA. France is a first-level enemy of the USA nowadays. And no friend of the rest of Europe, I would say: the intentions of the French leadership are to make the EU a sort of Grand France, in which the leadership is by default French (eventually shared with Germany) and the foreign policy is to do anything, even the most despicable things, to oppose the USA at every corner. Because they want to become a superpower again.

I'm all for the defense of European interests, but this is not exactly what I have in mind - this is the interest of France, not of the EU or Italy.
I also think that a minimum of ethics should be applied even in foreign policy (it depends from case to case, tho) and backing China against what are legitimate Taiwanese requests is not very ethical.

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April 20, 2005

Habemus Papam 

The new Pope was elected yesterday (coincidentially, while I was going to see Morbid Angel's gig, eh!): Cardinal Ratzinger, who took the name of Benedict XVI.

I think that these are worthy news, because the Pope still has some influence on the global scene and represents a moral authority for the Roman Catholics, but in some way also for other Christians. This Pope is known for being othodox and conservative, and I think that in this age, when too many think that Christianity should become more liberal, "diverse" and "inclusive", someone drawing lines is required. Yes, I still disagree with quite few of the Church's positions, but asking them to change their mind just because everybody else is more liberal, or it's time to cease being "confrontational" is foolish in my opinion.
Moreover, Benedict XVI is well aware of the problems posed by the Islamic immigration in Europe and especially of the Islamo-fascist threat, so that's quite a reason to like him, at least as an ally.

A lot of people are also harping about his brief past in the Hitler Youth and German Army during WWII. Come on people, give it a cut: it's quite ridiculous to talk about the "moral cowardice" of a 14-year-old boy in such a situation - when refusing to do certain things was very dangerous.

However, Benedict XVI won't be Pope for long: he's already 77 or 78, so I can foresee a term of about 10 years, no more.

Only time will tell, about everything.

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April 18, 2005

Sunny Chemistry 

Today, while searching a database for a paper on the kinetics of the water gas shift reaction (yes, that's my line of work), I stumbled across the work of a research group studying a sun-powered reactor for the gasification of petcoke (petroleum coke), a residue of some heavy crude refining processes. I am quite a fan of gasification processes, those used to convert basically any combustible material (gas, oils, coal, tars, coke, biomass, plastics) in syngas, useful for a number of industrial processes such as ammonia and methanol synthesis and Fischer-Tropsch processes, or even Hydrogen (the new object of worship of the enviro-folks) and I find this idea for the use of sun power quite interesting.

Gasification processes have a major drawback: they are inherently endothermic (loosely, they consume heat instead of producing it) and this means that part of the material to be gasified, or another fuel, must be burned to obtain the heat required in the process. In turn, this poses a practical limit on the efficiency of gasification - plus other more subtle difficulties. Using an external source of heat would resolve some problems, and indeed already in the 80s a German group thought of using nuclear energy for this scope (remembering from an old Scientific American* article). But we all know what's the current reputation of nuclear energy. At the same time, an Israeli group was already working on the use of solar power to produce syngas, so the idea is not exactly new.

From what I gather, however, the novelty is to use this petcoke as a feedstock for gasification: these crude treatment residues are always a pain in the back, because it's hard to find a good use for them. A refinery in Italy was using topping bottoms (a sort of tar) for its own thermal power station, but the local environmentalists did not like it.
This research is still at a rather initial state - they are using a lab-scale reactor placed in a sun simulator, and studying the relationships between apllied light power (and other factors) and reaction kinetics, but it may be the beginning of interesting developments in the field of gasification. And maybe the environmentalists would have only little to object.

* It wasn't exactly Scientific American but Le Scienze, its Italian edition.

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April 17, 2005

Random Miscellanea 

Life as a research student can be interesting: in one single day, you can discover that the transient current spike at the closure of an electrical circuit is enough to blow the fuse of your process controller - the solution is to fit ferrite sleeves to the power wires, hopefully. (Update 18/04: No, that wasn't the problem. The problem is that the supplier sold me the wrong model, a 110 V one - a long and irritant story...)
You can lso discover that another instrument (a multi-channel temperature indicator) did not work because it was shipped with an internal component not plugged into its connector. It took just ten minutes to fix it, tho.

The most interesting discover, however, is that years ago someone spilled mercury in your lab, and a certain amount of it collected in a gutter, and while looking for a lost tiny nut you can come across this mercury and consequently think "Shit, I've been breathing mercury vapors for months!". I'm not panicky about chemicals generally, but mercury is a nasty one. So you can call the security officer, and she'll have the lab decontaminated. Not bad for a Friday afternoon, ain't it?

Through Amritas, just today I found this website: The Martialist, "The magazine for those who fight unfairly". I find the whole concept quite interesting - I'm practing karate so I'm somewhat into these things, but also at a deeper level.
Fighting unfairly is seen as something bad, generally. But let's see the problem from a Clausewitzian persperctive: what's your objective; why are you fighting?
If you are fighting for you safety or survival (self preservation), then you must win; defeat means catastrophe. And playing by the rules against a cheating opponent is a losing strategy. Tit-for-tat is the winning one. Thus, if I'll be attacked in the streets, I'll kick nuts and poke fingers into eyes - I want to win and preserve myself.

And now some fun: a blogger (Slublog) launched the idea of posting one's iPod playlist. I have got no iPod, and neither want one, but this playlist thing sounds cool. Mine will probably be titled "Moshing Dismemberment" and be as follows (Via Iowahawk):

Motorhead - Overkill (Live at Hammersmith)
Motorhead/Sepultura - Orgasmatron
Manowar - Kings Of Metal
Metallica - Creeping Death
Sodom - Agent Orange
Sepultura - Arise (Live)
Pantera - Fucking Hostile
The Haunted - Hate Song
At The Gates - Blinded By Fear
Brujeria - Pura De Venta
Slayer - Angel Of Death
Carcass - Heartwork
Malevolent Creation - Sacrifical Annihilation
Death - Leprosy
Obituary - Slowly We Rot

Ok, that's it... pretty heavy I'd say; not for soft-eared folks, eh.

And to top it all, if I have to curse someone, I'll tell him/her "May you get Acne Conglobata!" (Warning, links to pictures of unsightly skin lesions).

I think that's enough for a Sunday afternoon...

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April 14, 2005

From Plant to Fuel (and Back) 

Another point often brought up during discussions about alternative energy sources is the biodiesel. It is a fuel for diesel engines produced by chemical treatment of various vegetable oils, those less expensive and less suitable for food use.

Vegetable oils as such cannot really be used in engines, because their properties do not meet the rather strict specifications. Usually, their viscosity is too high, and their chemical stability too low. The use of raw vegetable oils in modern diesel engines will probably cause the formation of gums in the fuel injection circuit, that will need to be cleaned/replaced with considerable expenses. If not real damage to pistons and cylinders.

Vagetable oils are a mixture of triglycerides of unsaturated fatty acids, in which three long chains of carbon atoms are attached to a glycerol residue through an ester group. To produce biodiesel (on industrial scale), vegetable oils are treated with methanol at rather high temperature, eventually in presence of a basic catalyst (sodium methoxide): the products of this process are glycerine, a mixture of methyl esters of fatty acids (our biodiesel) and small amounts of impurities. The biodiesel then is washed with water and purified, and it's ready to use - many modern engines can use it without almost any modification. Almost, because there can be complications like the non-compatibility of this fuel with certain types of rubber used for gaskets. Research is also underway to improve the production methods of biodiesel. It can lso

You can even find instructions to make it at home, but I recommend against it: first, messing around with chemicals without proper knowledge, apparatus and facilities is always quite dangerous, even if you follow to the letter a safe procedure. Second, chemical processes like this are less efficient on a small scale, thus home production of biodiesel is likely to consume an awful lot of energy per liter of fuel. Also the disposal of waste from these activities must be considered.

What's interesting about biodiesel then? It is a clean fuel containing basically no sulphur (while petroleum diesel needs costly desulphurization), while it contains oxygen that can improve combustion in the engine (altough an angine needs to be properly tuned to take the full advantage of this) giving more power and less pollution - mainly, less particulate.
But the main advantage of biodiesel, at least for its fans, is that it's produced from biomass, and thus when burns it only gives back to atmosphere the carbon dioxide that was absorbed by plants to produce it. At least theoretically, because in practice one has to consider the energy spent to cultivate the plants, extract the oil and process it.

The cons of biodiesel are that, while it produces less particulate, it produces more oxygenated chemicals such as aldehydes and ketones, which can constitute a healt risk. But there are bigger cons: one is the cost, which is currently double or more than petroleum diesel - granted, if the oil price soars again, the gap will somewhat be narrower.
The main problem is that biodiesel (and any biomass source) has a low yield: a huge surface of oil crops is required to produce a modest amount of fuel. I spoke to a woman working in the field, and she told me that to replace all diesel used in Italy with biodiesel, the whole surface of Italy should be covered with oil crops... That is obviously not feasible.
The price of biodiesel is often kept low by governmental subsidies, but I think that subsidy policies are not a good idea.

All in all, I think that biodiesel is a quite good idea, but we must be realistic about it: it can cover only a small amount of the diesel oil consumption - maybe 10%, and at a price that is not that competitive even in the best cases. Let's not forget that the first task of agricolture is to provide food to humans, too.

Update: It is worth to add that any analysis of the environmental impact of biodiesel must take into account the whole lifecycle of this product. From the preparation of the fields, to growing and harvesting the plants; the oil extraction process and then the biodiesel production, distribution and use. I think that some research groups are working on processes using supercritical methanol to extract oil from oily seeds and perform the trans-esterification reaction at the same time, so it will be possible to obtain biodiesel in a single step.

I'm still convinced biodiesel (and othe biofuels) can have useful applications, especially in places with favourable local conditions, but these products will not Save the World. Only a commercially viable nuclear fusion process can come close to Save the World.

Update #2: I realized the update above does nothing more than repeating points already in the main post. Oh well, that's what happens when blogging after a couple of pints...

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Catching Up 

Ok, finally I have some time to write a bit longer piece.

SimTerror '05 is going on at full regime on Silent Running and associated blogs. I would like to write my own post to contribute, but I did not find the proper inspiration yet.

I eliminated a discontinued blog from my blogroll and added Jheka's Daily Blitz, another moderate (at least in my opinion) and multi-subject blog.

The counter is ticking: 3600 visits now. As one can expect, it took long to reach 1000 hits, but then the traffic increased and now it is at a comfortable level.

No great thought-inspiring facts in the international or domestic scene, so I think soon you'll read my opinions about biodiesel.

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April 13, 2005

A Quickie 

I'm tired today, not in the mood for blogging - unless you want to know about assembling process control instrumentation into a 450 482 mm (19") rack box case...

I also want to go home and cook something nice for dinner, not before having a relaxing pint. So this post is written for the explicit purpose of keeping counters and such ticking and showing that The Italian Version has been updated...

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April 11, 2005

Not Always Evil 

I noticed first on LGF, there's a lot of commenters who are ready to attribute sinister and evil motives to anyone who does not conform to certain positions. I have even been labelled a dhimmi* (by one of the less bright bulbs in the box) because I stated clearly that I do not share the "nuke'em all and let Allah sort'em out" ideology.

Thus, I feel somewhat compelled to write down my opinions on the difference between true evil, and other occurrences such as stupidity.

The starting point is to notice that humans are very complex systems, and the exact behaviour of any single human in a given situation depends from a lot of factors: his (or her) personality, culture, knowledge, mental status, training, past experiences etc. I could cite examples for all these factors, but I think you can work them out by yourself.
Also, the concept of what is evil and what is not is fairly relative - I belive that is possible to work out a relative classification of goods and evils, but not an absolute one. Religious people, on the other hand, use the words of their God to estabilish what is good and what is evil in an absolute fashion. I think this is a chasm between me and them that cannot be filled. People are people, each one unique, and trying to reduce all of their behaviour to a simple evil/not evil dichotomy is preposterous to say the least. Sometimes people have to take extreme decisions, and basically choose between a lesser evil and a greater one. While I admire who is strong enough not to flinch in his belief even when faced by hard trials, I will not call evil, weak or coward everyone who gives in. Some of them surely are, not all.

There are some exceptions, like heavily indoctrinated people; they will have lost a great part of their individuality, and act in mainly as they have been taught. Interestingly, this is in part true also for trained people: for example, whoever has a hand combat training will do certain things if attacked regardless of their exact individuality.

Discussing good and evil at the level of nations (or hive-minds, in a sense), we must remember that nations have no friends, only interests. For self-interest, any nation on Earth is ready to ruin any other (some just lack the means), and moral considerations are rarely a barrier for trade, even of military equipment (check this story, for example). I regard self-interest to be basically neutral in a moral sense, but mostly each case must be considered individually. Would it be OK to trade with a mild dictatorial state when it's the only one owning certain resources? Yes. Is it OK to trade with a brutal, murderous regime only because pays the best bucks for certain goods? No.

The relationships betwwen nations can go all the way from a strong friendships (rare exception to the rule cited above), to close alliance, to mild hostility, all the way to relentless enmity and finally genocidal hate. Some people seem to forget all this, and see only the extremes of the scale.

There is also the issue that, especially in Europe (of the western world) governments often are not very representative of the people. They are principally representative of a self-sustaining, self-perpetuating elite of bureocrats and professional politicians. (EU anyone?)
The charges that Europe is hell-bent from 1500 years on the extermination of Jews, and always made it her first priority are borderline psychotic; surely the result of a heavily slanted vision of history. Yes, the Jews and Israel are not exactly deeply loved in Europe, I cannot deny that. But is the American left much different? Not at all, not the Left anywhere on Earth.

I think that certain decisions - like the Euro-Arab alliance, of whose existence I'm pretty sure now - are extremely stupid and will probably cause great harm. But they were not taken out of evil intent; only keeping shortsighted self-interest in mind. Otherwise, one may argue that America is evil because is financing the Saudis buying their oil. Actually, the USA does not buy so much oil from Saudi Arabia (I think the quota decreased since the 70s), and however a great part of the world's oil is concentrated around the Persian Gulf, so there isn't much to do about it - short of a war to seize the oilfields.

While some people embrace diversity, I embrace complexity. Much more difficult than accepting pre-packaged simplistic explanations, but also more rewarding.

*Dhimma is a word indicating the status of submission enforced by Muslims upon the Jews and Christians in Muslim countries during the Middle Ages. Dhimma refers to a precise set of conditions and a certain historical phase, but the word recently has been misused and abused and basically came to mean "anyone who does not say that the Muslims are followers of a satanic cult founded by a dirty, ignorant and brutal paedophile and should go back to their sandbox" (there may be some truth in this statement, but it's not the point now). To quote Stephen Schwartz:

The dhimma is now held out by a demagogic element in the West as a terrifying symbol of Islamic domination, and Western advocates of any rational approach to Islam short of a crusader war are regularly insulted as "dhimmis," or people who have surrendered to Muslim rule. One almost expects some of the anti-dhimma fanatics to label President George W. Bush a "dhimmi," but that may be left to the same liberal Democrats who proclaim that the democratic election in Iraq will lay the foundation for a theocracy. In reality, the two abusive propositions are the same, so there is no reason conservative Islam-haters should not adopt such an attitude about the situation in Baghdad, but for whatever reason, they have not.

Also horrible derivatives like "dhimmified" have been invented. Hence, I will not use any of these derivatives, and will use the word dhimma only to refer to the precise historical phenomenon.

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April 10, 2005

100% Guaranteed Unbiased Media 

Or maybe not. Wretchard is examining in depth the affair of the pictures from Iraq that recently were awarded the Pulitzer prize, and he found some rot:

"It is common practice ... several brave Iraqi photographers ... covering
the communities they live in ... give them access" are weasel phrases which
cannot disguise the essentially immoral relationship where news agencies bestow protected person status on enemy combatants in exchange for bloody images which can then be sold for money. Personally, I would rather be the man who takes the photos, at some risk to myself, than the man who commissions them. It's cleaner.

But of course some on the Left reply that it's all, as usual, a right-wing scheme to smear the brave reporters:

The AP's crime? In so many words, they are guilty of showing the conflict
in Iraq the way that it is, and not the way that the conservative blogosphere
wishes that it were. The right wants those pictures of rose pedals and
liberation parades that Dick Cheney promised them three years ago, and now
they're mad they didn't get them.

No, it's not - at least in Wretchard's (and my) case. My problem with many reportages from Iraq is not that they show falsity, but they carefully select what to report - and often in order to fit a political agenda. Whenever BBC airs news from Iraq, it's an endless list of negativity, of things going bad, body count, dissatisfaction etc. No space for the good news from Iraq - for that, you've got to resort to the blogs: Chrenkoff has a whole series called Good News from Iraq; while Iraqi Bloggers Central rounds up opinions straight from Iraq - some very favourable to the US, others less.

But when journalists happen to have ties, even remote, with the enemy, that's a different matter altogether: for American citizens (or even Italian ones, given that Italy has troops in Iraq too), that would be treason. For Iraqis or others, siding with the enemy means well, being enemies too. And enemies cannot expect a kids' gloves treatment.

There is also the aspect of secrecy of military operations, but that is only marginal in these cases - although the effect on the morale must be taken into account.

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April 08, 2005

Opinions About Guilt 

Some people contend that Europeans in general still feel guilty for the Holocaust, and thus they tend to see the Jews as bad guys (especially towards the Palestinians) because that would ease their guilt - it's not so bad to hate bad guys, is it?

Maybe that is the situation for someone, it is possible, but myself, I don't feel any guilt whatsoever for decisions taken by other people long before I was born. I think that kind of guilt is an absolute waste of time. Likewise, I do not fell guilty in the slightest for colonialism and such. Also, I cannot understand why I should feel sorry because my grandparents did not revolt against Nazism/Fascism (they were not supporters, either).

What the Jews, individually and as a community, do or do not is more or less my last concern. I think that Israel has any right to exist as an indipendent and sovereign state, in the form that her citizens prefer (yes, her citizens; not the Arabs or the UN, not even the USA). Who denies these rights is anti-Jewish, there is little doubt about it. However, they may be anti-Jewish to a lower degree than the Nazis and some Muslims who actively want to exterminate Jews.

To those who think that the Europeans should collectively atone for the Holocaust and their past sins, I reply that they won't get anything like that from me. I am not guilty, I do not feel guilty - take it or leave it.

I'm also a bit tired with all this Holocaust "memory". No, I do not think we should just happily forget about it. But the whole point of studying history is learning lessons, not remembering for memory's sake. These days, the Holocaust memorials are mostly vacuous and superficial - it seems that quite a few still remember, but only a minority truly learnt lessons. And the lesson of those horrific facts is that evil must be confronted and nipped in bud. It can take a war and yes, it's not pretty. But letting evil grow to its full size is much worse for everyone.

I'm sorry
For something I didn't do
Lynched somebody
But I don't know who
You blame me for slavery
A hundred years before I was born

Guilty of being white

I'm a convict
Of a racist crime
I've only served
19 years of my time

Guilty of being white

Minor Threat

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April 07, 2005

La Bacchetta Magica 

Pochi giorni fa, la miaggioranza di governo in Italia ha riportato una sonora sconfitta nelle Elezioni Amministrative. E' vero, la composizione di Parlamento e Governo vengono determinate dalle elezioni politiche (o generali) che si terranno nel 2006, ma questa consultazione fa capire l'aria che tira - ovvero, che come avevo previsto da qualche tempo, Berlusconi sta perdendo terreno. Anche tutto il centro-destra, ma Berlusconi come figura carismatica in modo particolare.

Evidentemente, gli italiani non sono molto soddisfatti delle prestazioni di questo governo. Per quanto riguarda me singolarmente, sono d'accordo in modo pressoché completo con la politica estera del governo Berlusconi.

I risultati sul fronte interno, invece, mi lasciano piú a desiderare. Berlusconi ha introdotto qualche misura di tipo liberista (come la cancellazione e riduzione delle tasse), ma lui non é un uomo veramente dedito al libero mercato: nelle sue decisioni, ha sempre mostrato un occhio di riguardo per le sue aziende. Ed addirittura per la sua persona, proponendo leggi (poi approvate) che facilitano la vita a chi si trova accusato di certi reati - per i quali guardacaso Berlusconi stesso ed alcuni dei suoi stretti associati si trovavano sotto processo. Berlusconi non ha risolto l'enorme conflitto di interessi che lo vede fortemente impegnato come imprenditore nel settore mediatico, finanziaro e sportivo da una parte, e Presidente del Consiglio dall'altra. Inoltre, questo Governo si é dimostrato pronto a silenziare con attacchi feroci, se non vera esclusione da TV ed altri media, voci di opposizione e dissenso - questo fa il paio con l'evidente sete di fama e potere di Berlusconi.

Il Cavaliere, inoltre, é un imprenditore (ed uno rampante) come formazione culturale, non abituato ai fini giochi e lunghi dialoghi a proposito di nulla tipici della politica italiana; Berlusconi ha usato parole dure, ha rotto consuetudini e non si é trattenuto dal dire agli avversari che lui ha la maggioranza e loro possono ficcarsi le loro proteste dove non splende. Questo puó anche essere un bene, ma sicuramente é stata una rottura traumatica della tradizione.

La situazione economica dell'Italia non é rosea, ma io non credo sia tutta colpa di Berlusconi. Intanto, molti sistemi in Italia sono affetti da decenni di mala gestione, ed una sola legislatura é un tempo breve per portare alcun cambiamento significativo - soprattutto quando ci si deve scontrare con chi non é disposto ad abbandonare i privilegi che ha acquisito. Secondo, la stagnazione economica non é esclusiva italiana, ma affligge una gran parte della UE, soprattutto quei paesi dove il sistema social-democratico é piú forte. I dati di crescita di Francia e Germania non sono migliori che per l'Italia, e pure la mitica Svezia ha problemi nel mantenere lo stato sociale.
Probabilmente questo Governo poteva fare meglio, ma non certo miracoli.

E qui arriviamo al punto: spesso mi sembra che gran parte degli italiani vogliano un governo con la bacchetta magica, uno che entro sei mesi dall'insediamento abbia risolto tutti i problemi, abbia creato lavoro ed aumentato gli stipendi; abbassato le tasse e migliorato i servizi; limitato l'immigrazione ed eradicato il razzismo; portato neve in montagna e sole al mare, eccetera. E tutto questo senza che i cittadini muovano un dito, prendano un minimo di responsabilitá o modifichino di un pelo le proprie abitudini; deve essere "lo Stato" o chi per lui a fare tutto il lavoro.

Per me, che ho abbracciato idee conservative (o liberaliste vecchia scuola), tutto questo non ha senso. Le societá migliori, piú libere e prospere, sono quelle dove i poteri ed il campo d'azione del governo sono piú ridotti - meno tasse, meno regolamentazioni, maggiori e chiari diritti individuali. Ma questo significa che i cittadini devono smettere di lamentarsi se lo Stato non riesce a soddisfare istantaneamente tutti i loro desideri, anche quelli in conflitto o proprio irrealizzabili, cominciare a lavorare per sé stessi e prendere la responsabilitá delle proprie scelte. Non dico diventare una copia degli USA, ma d'altra parte l'Europa sta scivolando verso l'ennesimo fallimento socialista, e con l'Islam che preme alle porte, e pure dall'interno, le conseguenze di un crollo potrebbero essere catastrofiche.

Per tornare alla politica italiana, il Centro-Sinistra non mi sembra una buona alternativa a Berlusconi: é un'accozzaglia di tranzisti ed europeisti sfegatati (Prodi in testa), pacifisti imbelli e personaggi che ancora si definiscono Comunisti senza vergogna. Senza contare la notevole litigiositá di questa coalizione, che potrebbe facilmente tradursi in instabilitá, quella stessa instabilitá che ha affossato il Centro-Sinistra nelle elezioni politiche del 2001.
Ma l'instabilitá di governo sarebbe assolutamente deleteria per il Paese in queste condizioni (non che sia mai benefica).

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April 05, 2005

The Day of Dandruff 

Often reality is stranger and much more complex than we think, and this is just another case - a nice one at that. The story is, a German research group discovered that solid aerosols of biological origin - among them, dandruff and other flaking skin, probably have an impact on clouds dynamics and thus climate much bigger than previously imagined.

He estimated that the amount of biological particles in the air, worldwide, annually is 1,000 teragrams. A teragram is somewhat more than a million tons.

By comparison, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Program, estimated biological particles at 56 teragrams, compared with 3,300 teragrams of sea salt and 2,000 teragrams of mineral dust.

The new finding means researchers should take biological materials seriously in climate modeling, in cloud physics and in hygienic questions such as allergies, Jaenicke said.
“Don’t regard that as a minor contribution,” he said.

So here we go, another factor to consider in that extremely complex system that is the Earth climate. Should we expect another international treaty to regulate the dandruff emissions? EU constitutional dictates about how to comb your cat and dispose properly of the falling hair? Elimination of plants that produce "bad" pollen?

I found this paper through TCS, which features an article dealing more rigorously with the enormous difficulties of climate modelling. Still, it entered in the common wisdom that the "global warming" is caused totally and exclusivley by the human emissions of carbon dioxide. Is there a limit to ignorance?

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You, faitfhful reader, may be assailed by the curiosity of knowing more of him who writes these gripping pieces and posts fascinating pictures, more than what transpares from the arid text on a computer screen. Well, today your curiosities will be satisfied, because this post will shed light on your hero!

His Habitat

His Playgrounds

His Toys

His Favourite Piece of
Bathroom Furniture Fixture

His Vehicle

And Finally, He Himself

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April 03, 2005

Pacifists and Peace-makers 

In response to this post, reader mamapajams wrote:

Well, it actually depends on the pacifist's point of view. In WWI there was
a Tennessee mountain man named Alvin York, a lay preacher who tried to get a draft deferment as a concientious objector, but changed his mind after talking to an officer who pointed out that sometimes evil has to be fought to save lives.

There is a difference between pacifist and peace-makers: pacifists reject the use of force as means to an end. It does not matter what the end is, and what amount of force will be applied, and against whom. For them, the use of any amount of force in any situation is axiomatically wrong. Exceptions can be made only for self-defense (and if your end is Communism...) but any pre-emptive use of force is strictly forbidden.

Peace-makers, on the other hand, are people of different persuasions who look at things in more pragmatic ways, and recognized that sometimes the use of force is necessary to neutralize violent or evil elements in order to build a better environment. Yes, peace will be born out of war if things are handled properly. There may be an element of unresolved contradiction at a philosophical level, but in practice that happens.

Peace-makers often find themselves in a very uncomfortable position: they have to do the dirty work, kill and be killed, witness unspeakable horrors and take the difficult road of pragmatism - finally, pay a heavy price so that other people will enjoy the peace, freedom and prosperity they brought. And soon many will forget the sacrifice of the peace-makers and will revile their memory, but the righteous men and women will know better than that, and honour the toil of the peace-makers. While the pacifists often will gain just a footnote in history, and be remembered as the ones who died first and accomplished nothing.

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One Pope Dies, Another Is Made 

No, I don't want to make fun of the death of Johan Paul II - the title is the translation of an Italian saying that is used to mean that things always go on, and however important, single persons can be replaced - more or less.

I never hid the fact that I am strongly a non-believer, but I came to respect the Pope: in the 80's, he was one of the towering figures in the struggle against Communism, together with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Tatcher and Lech Walesa; he did much for his homeland Poland and the people of the then Soviet block at large.

Also, Johan Paul stood firm and fast at helm until he died, unflinching in his beliefs even when weakened and ill. He even refused to go to hospital for his last hours, and faced death with the serenity of a true Christian believer.

I disagree with the position of the Catholic Church on some issues, and I think that the Pope has been rather soft about Islamism in recent times (maybe because weakened even in his spirit by the Parkinson disease), but he did so following the principles of peace and love that Jesus set forth.

I can sincerely say, Rest In Peace Johan Paul II.

Of course, bloggers did not miss this event: check Wretchard, Silent Running, Mystery Achievement et al.

Update: The downside of this story is that, not only on Italian TV, the least three days have been "All Pope, all time". When breaking news where exhausted, journalist put toghether retrospectives and biographies, but often thing ended up in mindless blabbering and such. I think this is the "media circus", and it's something I definitely do not like.

Update 4/04/05: How could I miss Donald Sensing's commentary on the Pope's death?
He has interesting things to say, plus mure news and thoughts about Iraq.

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Return Thoughts 

Over are the holidays and the days of sweet fooling around and excellent home-made meals (but fooling around becomes boring after a while, and plenty of food adds to my girth), and now I settled again in the British land. The trip did not go too bad, but a girl shouting in her chellphone on the coach from Stansted to central London - and it was past midnight, on a 3/4 empty bus - made me snap and I told her to finally shut the fuck up. Rude, yes, but it was effective too. Once at home, I looked into my suitcase and found that a jar of vegetable in oil opened during the trip and spilled oil around. Fortunately, the damage was contained and no items were really ruined. But it's one of those things that do not help to achieve a good mood.

However, last night the flight controllers set my plane on an unusual route: from Pisa, following the coast of Italy and France of to somewhere like Marseille, then overflying France, the Channel, Brighton and London, while already descending towards Stansted.
London from the air, on a clear night, is an awesome sight: her lights shine from kilometers away, and her major roads glow orange like the blood vessels of a gigantic organism that grew during the centuries eating and incorporating everything on its path.

London is vast, huge, street upon street, block upon block of houses, millions of people from anywhere in the world. It has the best and the worst of humanity, the best and the worst of "diversity", all on display for even not-so-acute observers. From the window of the 737-800, I could see the big picture, and even small details: the well-illuminated Tower Bridge in all its bulk of granite and British steel, and even street lights switching colour in the streets. And now it's where I live, in the belly of the monster, just another person in that enormous hive. I came from a tiny hamlet in the mountains of Italy, just a bunch of houses on a hillside where almost everyone is on first-name terms with each other. I wanted to see the world out there, and of what I see, part I like and part I dislike. I'm pretty sure I want to stay around for some more time, but the bond with my motherland cannot be rescinded.

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