Friday, February 27, 2009

The Trouble with Cheek-Kissing

[Image: Kissing Black-tailed Prairie Dogs, Mila Zinkova, 2006,
GNU Free Documentation License, Attribution Sharealike 2.5]


Theres a lot of stuff I'm still getting used to when it comes to Italian culture. One of the most awkward things has been the clash between the Northern European and Southern European styles of greeting.

In Northern Europe (certainly in the isles), we typically greet our closest friends with a hug. Doesn't have to be a massive bear-hug (unless we haven't seen them in a while) but hugging is common. Men hug women, women hug women and men hug men.

In Southern Europe, cheek-kissing is much more common. Men kiss women, women kiss women, and (only very rarely) men kiss men (much more usual between guys is a manly handshake). This has taken some getting used to.

Cheek-kissing is an almost ritualistic greeting/farewell. Each person in a given group must kiss every other person in the group - and so it can take some time to complete the ritual. In England, in situations like this, we can save time by simply waving at everyone and saying "Hi, guys!" In Italy, however, if someone starts a cheek-kiss, then the entire group has to kiss. I guess it helps a group to form bonds (much like getting drunk every weekend helps a group in England to bond... although, I'm not sure which method I prefer).

Generally, one doesn't actually kiss the person on the cheek in Trento. Instead, you touch cheeks and kiss the air in front of you. You do have to actually touch cheeks, though, because people tend to feel a bit jilted if you don't. One of my Italian friends has been telling me off because I haven't been touching cheeks properly (which she sees as a wishy-washy way of cheek-kissing).

It's difficult for me, being a fairly tall chap and not having had any practice at this, to get it right. I'll often misjudge and end up not touching cheeks (bad form). As cheek-kissing is normally done on both cheeks (mwah, mwah), one usually gets a second chance if the first cheek is a miss.

I honestly can't remember now if it goes left cheek first then right cheek or right cheek, left cheek. I do remember that at the beginning there would be some confusion with this, as one person would turn their face the wrong way and the pair would come face-to-face (wuh-woh!). This is, I suppose, another part of the ritual. As you get to know the act of cheek-kissing, the group harmonises and the act becomes automatic.

These differences in culture are fascinating. They can be little things, like trying to pass by someone as they are heading directly towards you in the street; instinctively you walk to the left (as that's the way one passes other people in England)... and they instinctively make for their right... so you end up bumping into each other.

The fun, of course, is in the learning!

[UPDATE: Because I've been getting so much traffic for this post, I've decided to update. In Italy, I kiss left cheek first, then right cheek. So that means when I approach somebody, first I turn my face to the right, then I turn my face to the left. Can't say for other countries, though!]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Archaeology, Myth, and History: the Minoan and Mycenaean Worlds (2007)

[Image: Minoan Prince of the Lilies, Knossos, Photo by: Harrieta171, 28/01/06,
GNU Free Documentation License, Attribution Sharealike 2.5]


This podcast is part of a series of lectures from UC Berkeley's "History 4A: The Ancient Mediterranean World" course, made available online for free here. The podcasts were recorded in the fall of 2007, and this particular lecture is number 7 in the series. I'm starting here because the earlier lectures deal not with Greece, but with Ancient Egypt and the Near East.

The lectures are given by Dr. Isabelle Pafford, who has a lively, fun style of lecturing that is worlds away from the stereotypical stuffiness of academia. She begins, for example, by addresing "all of those students who are not in this room, and who are listening to this lecture by podcast... I'm lonely! I miss you! I look out at the sea and I wonder if everyone's dropping my course!"

The lecture begins with a little geography. Pafford argues that the effects of Greek geography (a dense networks of islands in the Agean; a mainland characterised by valleys, mountains, coastline and a relative absense of plains and rivers) fostered both "seperatism" and "connectivity" in the Ancient Greeks, ultimately giving rise to the city-states. We have "a large number of seperate communities," but with a common identity and ethnicity, binding them together and seperating them from the "barbarians."

Pafford then talks about the bronze age, which ran from about 3000 b.c. to 1050 b.c. At this point, early in the lecture, things become a little confusing. Pafford says that the "bronze age begins in the 3rd millenium with the development of metalurgy, with the development of the ability to make tools and bronze, to make weapons. Things are no longer made of stone, according to the archeological record, and this is why we call it also the iron age."

The iron age?!? I thought we were talking about the bronze age! The iron age was (according to Wikipedia - that bastion of rigourous scholarship) 1000 b.c. to 400 a.d. Things get even more confusing, however, as Pafford goes on: "The earliest human habitation of Greece is about 1000 years before the Bronze Age, and the evidence for this human habitation in Greece goes back to about 18'000 b.c."

So was the earliest human habitation within Greece in 4000 b.c. or 18'000 b.c.? This is all very confusing. I think, however, that this sort of thing is a problem with the medium of podcasting more than with Pafford's lecturing. In a live lecture I would be able to stick my hand up and ask for clarification. Furthermore, the fact that, in a podcast, I can rewind time and play a segment over and over means I can pick up on tiny little errors of speech made by Pafford which she may not even be aware of.

So, does a lecture like this work as a podcast? On the whole: yes. It's true that Pafford does use a lot of visuals that we, as listeners, don't have access to - but then she does try to describe everything properly and the slides aren't a large part of the lecture anyway [EDIT: Slides play a much bigger part in later lectures, and the fact we can't view them does become difficult]. Pafford does have to pause a couple of times to rearrange her slides (as a reviewer of one of Pafford's other lectures has pointed out) but this sort of thing is inevitable during lectures, and is only really noticable because it's a podcast and not a live lecture.

Pafford manages to fit an enormous amount of information into a one hour lecture - going from 18'000 b.c. to the end of the Greek Dark Ages. By doing this, however, she manages to keep things exciting by focusing on the most interesting points.

There is a nice question and answer session at the end of the lecture (and students ask questions throughout) all of which Pafford answers well and in an engaging way. Whenever a question comes up, Pafford makes sure she repeats it clearly into her mic for the benefit of the podcast.

Overall, then - this is a fun, interesting lecture. There are a couple of issues, but more to do with the medium of the podcast than with the quality of the lecture. I look forward to listening to more of these!

Rating: 7 out of 12
Review Criteria

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review Criteria

Reviews are (hopefully) going to be a fairly central part of this blog. So it's about time I explained exactly what I'm going to be reviewing and how I will be reviewing it.

I'll be using a somewhat unorthodox 12 star review system, based on the Citizen Europe logo. However, something will have to be absotively ruddy outstanding to garner 11 stars, and I don't anticipate ever handing out the full 12 stars unless something is so 'gasmic it changes my entire worldview. So, essentially, it will be a 10 star system with an extra two stars available to highlight anything that really, truly stands out. Simple.

THE SCORES

Rating - 0 out of 12

If something scores 0 out of 12, then it is unreviewable. Either it is broken beyond repair, physically unreadable or unwatchable. Alternatively, if something scores 0 then it may have made my brain bleed a little bit.

Rating - 1 out of 12

1 out of 12 might mean that something is almost (but not quite) so pants that it is unreviewable. It may technically be watchable/readable/playable, but it is a serious effort to do so.

Rating - 2 out of 12

A score of 2 out of 12 means I find this item deeply, deeply flawed. I'm a fairly forgiving bloke, but this item is just trash. At least it physically works (although it may even have serious problems in this respect).

Rating - 3 out of 12

In all honesty, something I was reviewing would have to be pretty bad to actually score a 3 or less. Certainly, anything scoring 3 is not something I would recommend to anyone I liked. On the up side, if it scores a 3 then it (probably) at least works properly.

Rating - 4 out of 12

If something scores 4 out of 12, then it actually had one or two elements I enjoyed, although the overall experience was negative.

Rating - 5 out of 12

5 out of 12 is a completely unremarkable product. It is not necessarily bad, but it has nothing to particularly recommend it either.

Rating - 6 out of 12

6 out of 12 has done at least some of the right things. It's not great, but it just about manages to do more stuff right than wrong... Ho-hum.

Rating - 7 out of 12

7 out of 12 is actually not so bad. It may have some genuinely interesting elements - but several things let it down. The overall experience was positive. If whatever this thing is falls within your general area of interest, then it might be worth hunting it out.

Rating - 8 out of 12

8 out of 12 is pretty good. It may have one or two things wrong with it, but these niggly little negative points are outnumbered by the positive things. I would recommend this thing, but not as an absolute "must-see."

Rating - 9 out of 12

9 out of 12 is very nearly great. There is probably only one negative thing about it, and this is something that is only just preventing me from giving it 10 out of 12. Definitely recommended.

Rating - 10 out of 12

10 out of 12 is a nearly perfect product (just look at how excited the little man has become!). If you have the opportunity, you should hunt this down and watch/read/play it. I highly recommend this.

Rating - 11 out of 12

Wowzers! Anything scoring 11 out of 12 is particularly noteworthy. If you can experience only some of the things reviewed on this blog, this should be one of them.

Rating - 12 out of 12

Anything worth 12 out of 12 has genuinely changed the way I view the world. Stop reading this. Find whatever it is I gave 12 stars and experience it. Now.

WHAT WILL BE REVIEWED

Pretty much anything can be reviewed. Articles, books, music, food, places, people, anything.

The only criterion for inclusion is that there must be some connection to Europe. I will be looking at things from a "European" perspective, and specifically looking at how much something can teach me about European history and culture. If I come out of the experience feeling I've learned something, then I will rate it positively.

Generally, the things I review will fit into a historical "theme." I will try my best to work my way forwards, chronologically, through the whole of European history. I'm starting with Ancient Greece, and I will try to finish with modern Europe (c'est vrai: this is hopelessly ambitious).

I'm more than willing to include "themes" that might fit outside the geographical borders of Europe (insofar as they exist) that nonetheless have had an impact on the development of European culture. Ancient Egypt, Persia, and the levant, for example, will probably qualify as "themes" of interest.

Ultimately, this will be a highly subjective series of reviews. I am doing all of this in order to get a handle on what is "Europe," and anything which helps me to meet this goal I will view positively.

By the way, if you can think of anything I should be reviewing, please send me an e-mail at citeur@gmail.com!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Notes from The Carnival

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Late last night, we returned home from the carnival of Venice. Elle had been to the carnival as a child, and had often told me about her experience. It always sounded amazing - masked figures emerging from the shadows of twisting Venetian alleyways and covering people in clouds of confetti before disappearing again into the maze. I really wanted to see it!

We almost didn't go this year (for various reasons) but then, at the last minute, we decided to hop on a train and head for Venice. The first stop, though, was Verona - where we went to a couchsurfing fancy-dress party. Elle went as Puss in Boots, and I went with a cheap (but grotesque) pig mask, making me look like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

We met some really interesting people dressed in some truly bizarre costumes (one couchsurfer, for example, had actually gone as a tentacle from cult video-game Day of the Tentacle. He had made himself a giant painted felt tentacle, and would glide across the floor in a slightly disconcerting way. When he won the prize for "Most Original Costume of the Night," a group of his friends tackled him and jumped on him, causing his costume to ooze blue and green paint onto the floor. Truly bizarre.)

We partied till late and slept in a spare room. The next day (after coffee and biscuits) we caught the train to Venice.

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

We arrived in the late afternoon, and as soon as we left the station we promptly found ourselves lost in the twisting labyrinth of Venetian streets. Despite signposts offering directions to the main piazza, Venice is almost impossible to navigate without constantly looking at a map. This is, however, half the fun. One is never entirely sure where one is.

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

The sun started to set, and things became even more confusing. At one point, we were desperately rushing back to the train station to avoid missing the last train home, and realised that the main street we had been looking for was actually a canal. All those wiggly lines look the same on a map when twilight sets in! Luckily, we found another way to the station.

Despite being constantly lost, Venice was great fun. I love the experience of walking through a crowd at night and of having absolutely no idea what strange sight is going to pop up next. I had this feeling in Bangkok in Khaosan Road, and I got it in Venice during the carnival. I saw parades of snowmen, Village People and Ghostbusters (with accompanying music), medieval kings and knights and more, all against the backdrop of the canals of Venice at sunset.

The highlight of the night, though, was when we stumbled out into Piazza San Marco to find it packed to the gills with crazy costumed people... and a woman tied to a balloon flying through the air to music. It was great fun to watch her swimming and cartwheeling through the air, brushing her fingertips against the crowd below before flying up high and performing a series of somersaults. Fantastique!


[Video: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Friday, February 20, 2009

Il Grand Masquerade

[Image: Venice Shop Window, 2002, Peter Rimar, Public Domain]

To celebrate me having finished my exams, Elle and I are off to Venice for a couple of days. We want to try and catch the tail-end of the carnival (hopefully I'll get some pictures and post them up here). Exams all went well, and spirits are high. We're off to a couchsurfing party in Verona (of Romeo & Juliet fame) tonight, and then on to Venice tomorrow.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

EU 2.0: Europe and The New Social Media

[Image: Twitter Pack, carrotcreative, 2008, Attribution 2.0 Generic]

"Social media" was one of the buzz-phrases of 2008. It was the year when the new generation of social-networking tools began to seep into the public consciousness - the "new social media" upstarts looking to usurp profits from Facebook and MySpace. Twitter in particular caught peoples attention, the ranks of its users swelling enormously as celebrities and politicians started using it to send out messages to fans. As Obama's campaign has demonstrated, these new social-networking sites have fantastic potential in politics, especially when it comes to closing the much-lamented "democratic deficit." On the other hand, they also have enormous potential for the viral transmission of slander, gossip, porn and humourously captioned pictures of cats.

I've just got into Twitter myself, and in terms of how I adopted it, I have behaved like an absolutely typical newbie. My experience was as follows:

Step 1) The First Tweet

When I first blogged about Twitter a few weeks back, I called it a "glorified Facebook status-update bar." I couldn't see the point. Didn't Facebook do this sort of thing better? But Twitter had been in the news a bit, and Stephen Fry was on board and had twittered all about being stuck in a lift, so I thought I might as well see what all the fuss was about and give it a go.

My first "tweet" was fairly predictable: "Josef is finding his feet with this 'twitter' malarky." Nothing wrong with that, of course. I was finding my feet. But it wasn't long before I'd moved on to stage two...

Step 2) Non-Information Overload

I proceeded to detail my life in excruciating detail - explaining what I'd had to eat, what I was watching, what I was listening to, what I was doing during every minute of every hour of every day. I thankfully stopped short of describing my bowel movements... but only just.

To be fair, Twitter did market itself as a service which, to use correctly, requires you to answer the simple question, "What are you doing?" several times a day. But I found this to be a deeply unsatisfying way of using Twitter. And so did my friends.

After a few days of "Josef is not sure what to do today" and "Josef found a peanut behind the sofa", I started to get posts on my Facebook wall (I'd integrated Twitter with my Facebook status-update bar) complaining that my updates were getting increasingly tedious.

Step 3) Enter The Power-Users

Before long, I naïvely thought I had finally "got" Twitter. It seemed to be the perfect web-feed. I "followed" a bunch of blogs and websites, and their "tweets" would pop up on my desktop (I used Digsby to follow Twitter in real-time), letting me know about interesting new articles and posts as they went online.

Then, as I started following highly-networked Twitter accounts such as Stephen Fry, Barrack Obama and Kevin Rose, the predatory "power-users" began to take an interest. People with 20'000 followers, usually social media "experts," began randomly following my account.

At first, I didn't mind all these new contacts. I followed them back and quickly built up a little network of mutual followers. But it was a flawed network. We had absolutely nothing in common, and they were only using me to bump up their numbers. So along came the fourth stage...

Step 4) The Great Purge

This was where Twitter started to get interesting.

I unfollowed all of the useless power-users who had been cluttering up my data-feed. More would quickly take their place, and at first I would manually block them from following me. After a while, though, I just ignored them. Most power-users run programs which automatically unfollow you if you don't reciprocate and follow them back.

When I became more selective about who I followed and who I let follow me, I began to see Twitter's real potential. I was organically growing a network of contacts tailored to my specific areas of interest. In my case, it was the European Union.

After several weeks of use, I really think I "get" Twitter now. I've said that before, and I've been wrong, but I've had a bit more time with it now.

Twitter (IMHO) has three primary uses:

  • Information Gathering - Twitter makes a rubbish web-feed. Google Reader is much better at that particular task. But if you run Twitter in the background, then it works like the little rolling infobar at the bottom of TV news broadcasts. And Twitter has the potential to deliver news almost in real-time, well before traditional media. The first pictures of the Hudson river plane-crash came out through Twitter, uploaded by a passenger on a ferry from his mobile.
  • Promotion - Twitter, out-of-the-box, is a bit pants. But if used in concert with a program like Digsby and a Twitter-specific search-engine (such as Twitter Search) then it can become a powerful little tool for promoting your work. You can search for people who share your interests, and start following them. Over time, you can develop a network of people who are genuinely interested in what you're writing, no matter how obscure the topic. The readership of this blog (although still humble) shot up when I started using Twitter.
  • Networking - I inadvertently managed to get my blog selected by the editors of bloggingportal.eu as one of their picks of the day. I'm not sure, but I have a sneaky suspicion this was because I'm following some of the editors of that site and have been @tweeting things their way. At the very least, it got my blog noticed. But Twitter is a great way to meet contacts with similar interests. In fact, the whole point seems to be to grow a network of contacts - which makes Twitter a breeding ground for the creation of new and creative collaberative projects.
EU 2.0: When Twitter Meets the EU

In addition to these primary uses, I've been experimenting with a fourth (and slowly emerging) new way of using Twitter. It's only just taking shape, but already (of course) has a portmanteau to describe it: Twitterviewing. To twitterview.

This is, for me, by far the most exciting potential use for Twitter. It's something I've only experimented with a little so far, but it could potentially become a vital tool for journalists, bloggers and (most importantly) citizens. In the European context: public figures, MEPs and other institutional members (such as commissioners) are increasingly turning to new social media that could potentially expose them more and more to questions from the growing ranks of "citizen journalists."

So far, EU politicians and bureaucrats are still finding their way when it comes to new social media. A handful already have blogs (some of them obviously maintained by their staff and used for nothing more than posting weekly itineraries online) and I haven't yet come across any which actually allow comments. [EDIT: Thanks again to Grahnlaw for exposing my sloppy research! Some eurocrats do indeed allow comments on their blogs. They may not often actually respond (perhaps understandably, given the amount of vitriol thrown their way) but they should be commended for at least allowing comments. I want to encourage more people to point out errors in my posts - I will always try to correct them. I have no editors or producers, so my readers are effectively the only content-control I have. Another drawback (and benefit) of new media.] The few "eurocrats" already on Twitter are mostly using it as a web-feed for their blogs. But the potential is there.

It is, of course, the ultimate wet-dream of e-democracy. To have unfettered, 24/7 access to democratically elected representatives who will respond to direct questions from concerned citizens, without a press officer there to hold their hand. It is also, however, horribly unrealistic. No doubt some European politicians and other EU people will be willing to expose themselves to the public eye and dive headfirst into twittering (and good for them!) - but most will be either unsure of the technology, unwilling to take the PR risk or, doubtless, worried about the inevitable accusations of time-wasting. But there is another important way Twitter and the other new social media could positively affect the EU. They could impact upon the developing EU blogosphere by better connecting bloggers with the general public.

One of the ways Twitter differs from other social networking sites, such as Facebook, is that it is a more receptive environment for cold-networking. With Facebook, for example, when the average user receives a friend request from a total stranger, they will reject it as a potential spammer (I certainly do). Cold-networking (networking without any previous contact) is, however, at the heart of the Twitter community.

I experimented a little with cold-networking when I wrote about the recent Swiss referendum. The day the news broke, I hopped onto Twitter Search and looked for accounts from Switzerland (and anybody generally just talking about the Swiss referendum). I put together a short generic question asking people their opinions on the results and I sent it out. Every single person I asked replied. Here's a selection (anonymous because I neglected to ask their permission to post this):

"to me a "Yes" on Swiss vote means openness and a willingness
to take some risks - Swiss people becoming better at both IMO"

"populations are becoming more international
in composition and outlook."

"Another POV is apparent if you look at a map:
look at .ch and its borders, can we really go alone?"

Perfect, bite-sized little reaction quotes for a blog. These people, total strangers, were willing to share their opinions with me through Twitter. Not only that, but several of them have since joined my network of contacts and we've been engaging in a bit of debate. They will (I hope) read my blog and comment. And I will listen to what they have to say (and especially to how they react to my views on their opinions). There is the potential for real, on-the-spot, citizen-journalism in new social media.

And there is, of course, also very real danger here as well. "Bite-sized" can also mean shallow. "Citizen-journalism" can also mean sloppy hack journalism. Early pitfalls have already emerged. When conducting twitterviews, for example, it needs to be made clear that what is said will be posted online, and permission needs to be sought for citations.

One twitterviewee also pointed out the obvious limitations of a platform like Twitter:

Yes you can [ask my opinion], but I will
not be able to answer in 140 characters! :)

In future, then, I think I'll include an e-mail address in my question, so twitterviewees have more of an opportunity to expand upon their answers.

Ultimately, these are still early days out on the European digital frontier. Two new sites have just been launched which could provide a focal point for the EU blogosphere. I've already mentioned bloggingportal.eu, which aggregates EU-related blog posts and has editors select the most interesting posts daily. It could become an invaluable site for blog-promotion, and for anyone who doesn't have the time to set-up a dedicated RSS feed. I'd like to see a bit more transparency in terms of information about the editors and the selection process, but we're promised this will come soon. [EDIT: Andreas of Kosmopolito blog, also involved with the bloggingportal project, has responded to this. Editor profiles will indeed be up soon, but the selection process is subjective, and so it's difficult to make it transparent. This is fair enough, and when Editor profiles are online, (hopefully outlining political views and areas of interest), it shouldn't be a problem].

The second site is an initiative by the European Journalism Centre called TH!NK ABOUT IT. There seems to be some overlap between the two websites, even if it's only that the seemingly omnipresent Jon Worth is involved in both projects [EDIT: Andreas pointed out that his and Jon's involvement in both projects is a coincidence reflective of the small size of the EU blogosphere. I really do see those guys popping everywhere! :D]. TH!NK ABOUT IT is a blogging competition aimed at drumming up public interest for the European Parliamentary elections in June.

The site seems to be experiencing a couple of technical difficulties (some dead feeds and profiles) but this is probably to be expected from any project involving 80-odd members of the public. The roster of bloggers has been picked from the 27-member countries and will be whittled down by public votes and a "grand jury" to an overall winner. There's a good gender mix amongst the bloggers, but it's a sea of white faces. It would have been nice to see more (any!) non-white representation.

Another thing which seems a bit odd is that, from the looks of it, all of the ED!TORS are also simultaneously contributing TH!NKERS, with the possibility of winning the "grand prize." This could be a bit suspect, as the ED!TORS have certain powers when it comes to influencing the jury. Could be fishy... but let's give them the benefit of the doubt. [EDIT: Thanks to Andreas for correcting me on this one. ED!TORS cannot post blog entries, and cannot win the final prize. So, no conflict of interests.]

Regardless, TH!NK ABOUT IT has already demonstrated its potential to succeed in its primary goal; it's encouraged me to start looking into how exactly I'm going to vote in the EU elections in Italy. And if only a small fraction of those 81 bloggers go on to develop successful EU blogs, then the whole project will have been a success.

Like I said, however, it's still early days on the European digital frontier. Let us, as always, wait and see.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Will Financial Crisis Break Up Euro-Zone?

[Image: Great Depression Marchers in Canada, circa 1930, Public Domain]

Danske Bank, one of the largest Danish banks, has released its most recent report on the current financial unpleasantness. According to Danske Bank, economist types around the world are no longer worried about "systemic risk in the financial sector" (i.e. the entire international economic system tanking à la the Great Depression) and are instead bracing themselves for the deepest global recession since the 1970s.

So 2009 won't be another Great Depression (not even close), but, nonetheless, for most of us the worst is still to come. As the damage seeps from the most exposed sectors (finance, banking, property, construction, etc.) and out into the real economy, national indicators generally are going to continue to slide. Bankruptcies, bail-outs, nationalisations, high-profile takeovers and rising unemployment will be the order of the day.

From the European perspective, though, the most interesting titbit in the report is this one:

"Intra-euroland spreads have exploded on the back of rating actions and an increased focus on economic imbalances. This has fuelled speculation that one or more countries may feel the need, or be forced, to default on their debt and/or leave the euro area."

Translated from economist-jargon: credit rating agencies have decided that some Euro-zone economies are looking a lot shakier than others. Italy, Portugal and Spain have emerged as definite problem countries. Italy, for example, has broken the EU's Growth and Stability Pact for several years in a row. This is a pact signed by EU countries and is a precondition to joining the Euro. It mandates that government deficit should be no more than 3% of GDP, and total government debt should be no more than 60% of GDP.

Italy's debt currently amounts to more than 100% of annual GDP.

The two Euro-zone economies most at risk, however, are definitely Greece and Ireland. Yields from these two countries are over two percentage points higher than baseline yields (measured by good old dependable German yields). In other words, investors and rating agencies have labelled Greece and Ireland as high-risk economies and sealed them up in their own special category labelled "do not invest!"

Danske Bank argues that "it seems highly unlikely that anyone would leave the euro, not least because the cost of doing so would be enormous. On the other hand, 2008 has taught us never to say never." Certainly, the President of the European Central Bank has, in recent interviews, had to rebuff the idea that the Euro-zone could be dismantled.

Personally, I'm not sure any countries will choose now to actually leave the Euro. From the perspective of national governments, there is too much economic uncertainty in the air to seriously consider exposing their currencies - better to wait until times are good again and they won't risk being blamed for tanking their economies.

I can't see the ECB ejecting countries either - it's always taken a "flexible" approach when it comes to the Growth and Stability Pact, and a global recession will probably just increase that flexibility. [EDIT: Thanks to Grahnlaw for pointing out that the Council (specifically EcoFin) is responsible for amending and monitoring the SGP, not the ECB]

Instead of countries leaving the Euro, much more likely is an increase in national discontent as public spending is scaled back (see the recent protests in Italy over cuts in education spending, for example).

Still, let's wait and see.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Snowshoeing Around

[Image: Josef Litobarski, 2009, Attribution 3.0 Unported]

Start small. Start with baby steps. That was my problem with skiing. I started by actually trying to ski! How silly of me! Before you can try skiing, you have to try walking, or, more precisely, shoeing.

Snow shoeing.

That's exactly what Elsje and I had a go at yesterday! We took a bus up to nearby Monte Bondone and rented a couple of snowshoes. Of course, snow shoeing isn't really going to teach me anything about skiing... but it might cure my growing phobia of snow.

Tromping about all morning in snowshoes was great fun - especially when travelling downhill. Going uphill was exhausting. I'm naturally a downhill kinda guy at the best of times, but yesterday I'd only had seven hours sleep in about two days. I've been frantically scribbling away at a history essay for the last week, and crunchtime has been brutal.

Elsje had to keep shouting at me to stay awake whilst snowshoeing. At one point, I fell over in the snow and wanted to just stay down there and sleep. In my delerium, I genuinely thought the patch of snow I'd landed in was a great, soft marshmallow.

Luckily, Elsje slapped me about a bit and we went and had hot chocolate. Lovely.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Swiss... Off with Their Heads?

[Image: Swiss Guards, Arnaud Gaillard, 2005,
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 1.0]


Switzerland is not a part of the EU. It is, however, completely surrounded by EU countries. As such, it depends on the EU an enormous amount for trade. Which means it needs access to the EU Single Market (so it can trade with EU countries without paying the tariffs that non-EU countries normally have to pay). To this end, Switzerland has signed a series of bilateral trade agreements with the EU to give it access to the Single Market. But there is, of course, a catch...

A "guillotine" clause exists in the trade agreements. The EU is able to sever all of these agreements should Switzerland fail to comply with certain EU legislation. And thus Switzerland has been forced to adopt more and more EU law if it wants to keep trading on equal terms with the EU. It has no say in the decision-making process (because it is not an EU member-state) but it nonetheless has to adopt the legislation.

Tomorrow, the guillotine may be coming down. Swiss citizens will be voting on whether to extend labour rights to Romanian and Bulgarian citizens (these countries being the two most recent countries to join the EU). If they vote "no" - it could cut Switzerland's ties to the Single Market.

Not a good thing to happen to Switzerland during a global recession.

UPDATE: Switzerland has voted "Yes" - and so will keep access to the Single Market in exchange for opening its borders to labour from Romania and Bulgaria.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Medea (1988)

[Image: Medea, 1862, Eugène Delacroix, GNU Free Documentation License]

The other day, I watched Lars von Trier's 1988 version of Euripides's play - Medea.

I can never make up my mind when it comes to von Trier's work. I really enjoyed The Five Obstructions, and I found the few episodes that I watched of The Kingdom to be both haunting and surreal (and infinitely better than the dumbed-down Stephen King remake). Dogville was powerful, but sadistic and exhausting... and the whole Dogme 95 idea was never really my cup of tea. Sometimes the constraints von Trier places on his film-making seem to distract from the actual films themselves.

Having said that, von Trier clearly has the ability to make outstanding films when he puts his mind to it, and that is certainly what he's done with Medea. The film tells the story of the eponymous Medea, a witch who falls in love with Jason (he of Argonauts fame) and helps him complete his quest for the golden fleece and return home to Iolcos safely. The story begins after Jason has abandoned Medea at Corinth with their two children, and is about to marry King Creon's daughter in order to become heir to the throne of Corinth.

Until Medea, none of the movies I had watched based on ancient Greek myth had managed to properly match my idea of the flawed Greek hero. Clash of the Titans, The Odyssey and Jason and the Argonauts all interpreted "heroic" to mean brave and noble (although Odysseus in the 1997 version of The Odyssey was somewhat jaded). Jason in Medea, however, is scum. A young Udo Kier plays Jason with a quiet intensity so fierce that he looks borderline sociopathic.

Kirsten Olesen, also, is perfectly cast in the role of Medea. There's something weird and terrifying about her, in her black dress and skullcap, even when all she's doing is skulking about in a swamp gathering berries. And somehow (despite the appalling lengths she goes to for revenge) Olesen manages to play her as a sympathetic character.

The actors, then, do a fantastic job. But the stage they work upon is equally impressive. Throughout Medea, the cinematography is nothing short of stunning. The weather seems determined to drown and batter into total submission everything it comes across before the movie ends, with fog, rain and constant, overpowering wind screaming through each and every scene. The only time the elements take a break and the sun comes out is during the climax of the film, as Medea commits her terrible crime.

In my Greek cultural odyssey, this movie has set the benchmark.

A puzzling one, that von Trier chap...

Rating - 10 out of 12
Review Criteria

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Hookahs & Kalishnikovs

[Image by urban_data, 2007, Attribution 2.0 Generic]

Elle and I had a shisha party round our apartment the other night. An Armenian friend of ours recently went on holiday to Dubai, and she brought back a shisha and some packets of flavoured tobacco. At the party, we had two flavours: one mixed fruit and one coconut - and the tobacco in both was colourful, sticky and sweet. We had beer, spirits and snacks and we passed around the shisha pipe while we chatted... and interesting things were discussed.

Somehow, at the end of the night, the conversation turned to military matters. At the table there happened to be a guy from Eritrea and a guy from Belarus. Both had done compulsory military service in their respective countries, and both told stories which reinforced to me how strange and alien the world of the military is to people who have not experienced it (i.e. me).

The guy from Eritrea explained that, during his training, his instructor had taught him not to waste bullets by holding up a round of ammunition and saying "You see this? This cost 25 cents of a dollar. 25 cents! The money paid for this bullet would have fed a family for three days. Do not miss, or you will be starving an Eritrean family for nothing."

At this, the guy from Belarus burst out into a broad smile and started reminiscing about his own experiences in the army: "Yes! I remember the Kalishnikov! I could disassemble it in 6 seconds!"

To my untrained eye, both of them appeared completely ordinary. Certainly, neither looked like they had recieved training in how to kill me should I ever try to invade their countries. It was only when they spoke so familiarly about the workings of assault rifles that they seemed in any way unusual.

When Elle travelled around the world on a ship for 100 days, she said that the one thing that struck her in every country she visited was how militarised the world was. Perhaps Western Europe is this little civilian bubble - a place where the military is kept hidden away, seperated from most people's lives by a TV screen. It's interesting to meet people with different experiences.