a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Greece, your rescue package is almost ready

Posted on the February 28th, 2010

The financial leaders of the European Union are almost ready with a rescue package for the being-pushed-downhill-fast Greece, according to an article last week in Spiegel Online International (“PIIGS to the Slaughter/Can the Euro Zone Cope with a National Bankruptcy?” Feb 22, 2010). Officials have been ordered to keep everything hush-hush for now, according to the article, but it offers a glimpse at some of the details.

The bones of the rescue package were put together by the combined efforts of German and French officials, the article states, who then brought the rest of the 16-country Euro zone financial members into the loop.  Excerpt:

The German Finance Ministry expects support for Greece to amount to between €20 billion and €25 billion. All the members of the euro group are expected to participate, including those, like Spain and Portugal, who also might find themselves needing help soon.

In coming together and drafting the rescue package for Greece, the Eurozone countries had no choice but to do so, according to the article. The speculators attacks on the euro and on Greece reportedly are showing no letup. Europe is under threat of member-country bankruptcies, the writers say in the article’s opening lines:

The consequences would be dramatic for the whole of the continent, especially German banks, which are highly exposed to risky debt. EU politicians are willing to pay almost any price to help the beleaguered countries.

I would say this article is a must read for those of us standing on the sidelines trying for a glimmer of understanding of what’s happening in Europe now. The Spiegel article lays out a detailed and comprehensible chronology of how this potential crisis has been created, and what may or may not happen in the future.

It’s also stomach-churning reading, if you don’t share the to-hell-with-everybody-but-me profiteering views of speculators and bankers gone bonkers.

A little further reading: (Why?)

“This Crisis Won’t Stop Moving” by Gretchen Morgenson, New York Times, Feb 6, 2010

“Just a few lessons” (editorial by Jean-Dominique Giuliani, Feb 10, 2010)

“Rescuing Greece. Economic union. Two different things” by Charlemagne, The Economist, Feb 12, 2010

“Greece turns on EU criticsFinancial Times, Feb 12, 2010

“Eurozone overhaul” by Mark Schieritz, presseurop, Feb 12, 2010

“Greece Derails: Is Europe Far Behind?” by Simon Johnson, Huffington Post, Feb 12, 2010

“Wall St. Helped Greece to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis” New York Times, Feb 13, 2010

“The Greek Tragedy That Changed Europe” Wall Street Journal, Feb 13, 2010

“Goldman Goes Rogue – Special European Audit To Follow” by Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario, Feb 14, 2010

Portugal – “Slow progress to avoid decline” by Guido Rampoldi, presseurop, Feb 15, 2010

“Senior Goldman Adviser Criticizes Greece – Without Disclosing His Goldman Affiliation” by Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario, Feb 15, 2010

“The evolution of Greece’s financial woes” by Stamatis Assimenios, Deutsche Welle, Feb 16, 2010

“Euro flounders amid Greek woes” by Siva Sithraputhran, FRANCE 24, Feb 16, 2010

“The Dutch Join the Germans in Rejecting Bailout of Greece” by Edward Harrison, Roubini Global Economics, Feb 16, 2010

“A reminder for the EU: America did not create federalism to back the dollar” by Charlemagne, The Economist, Feb 17, 2010

“Feldstein’s Euro Holiday” Paul Krugman blog, New York Times, Feb 17, 2010

“Wall Street’s Bailout Hustle” by Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone Magazine, Feb 17, 2010

“Fear of Mediterranean Contagion Grows” by Julio Godoy, IPS, Feb 18, 2010

Crash of the titans” Commentary, Kathimerini English edition, Feb 19, 2010

“Greece Asks for Details on EU Aid Plan” Spiegel Online International, Feb 19, 2010

“Greece not looking for EU handouts with debt crisis, says Papandreou” by Zoe Wood, Guardian, Feb 21, 2010

“Prospects For Financial Reform” by Simon Johnson, The Baseline Scenario, Feb 23, 2010

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Don’t be discouraged, says Elinor Ostrom

Posted on the February 26th, 2010

In 2009, Elinor Ostrom became the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize in Economics. Ostrom received the great honor because she took a master scientist’s interest in situations such as this one:

…consider the management of grasslands in the interior of Asia. Scientists have studied satellite images of Mongolia and neighboring areas in China and Russia, where livestock has been feeding on large grassland areas for centuries. Historically, the region was dominated by nomads, who moved their herds on a seasonal basis.

In Mongolia, these traditions were largely intact in the mid-1990s, while neighboring areas in China and Russia – with closely similar initial conditions – had been exposed to radically different governance regimes. There, central government imposed state-owned agricultural collectives, where most users settled permanently. As a result, the land was heavily degraded in both China and Russia.

And this one:

. ..user-management of local resources has been more successful than management by outsiders. A striking case is that of irrigation systems in Nepal, where locally managed irrigation systems have successfully allocated water between users for a long time. However, the dams – built from stone, mud and trees – have often been primitive and small.

In several places, the Nepalese government, with assistance from foreign donors, has therefore built modern dams of concrete and steel. Despite flawless engineering, many of these projects have ended in failure.

These two examples are from the Nobel Foundation’s press release describing the unique value of Ostrom’s life work. Over several decades, the economist gathered information that illuminated the complexities and successes of problem solving related to shared resources, according to the release.

In particular, Ostrom challenged the conventional wisdom that the only solution to public problems is either to turn them over to the state to manage or hand them off to privatization. There’s a third way that often can trump both of these, according to Ostrom — let the users themselves create and run their own systems at a local level.

What’s more, the Nobel release noted, Ostrom’s work also has shown that there is a much greater willingness of individuals to participate in their own shared systems — for little or minor reward — than is commonly believed.

This month in the online edition of The Solutions Journal, Ostrom brings this same perspective to the problem of global warming. In the aftermath of the disappointment of Copenhagen 2009, the economist says it is important to recognize that climate change problems can be solved in other ways:

Acknowledging the complexity of global warming, as well as the relatively recent agreement among scientists about the human causes of climate change, leads to the recognition that waiting for effective policies to be established at the global level is unreasonable.

Instead, it would be better to self-consciously adopt a multi-scale approach to the problem of climate change, starting at the local level. This approach serves to maximize the benefits at varying levels and encourages experimentation and learning from diverse policies…

Read the full article here.

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Reading Barzun: decoding today’s headlines

Posted on the February 25th, 2010

This morning, I read in the New York Times that the banks who helped Greece hide its massive debt  may actually now be pushing the nation closer to the brink of financial ruin (“Banks Bet Greece Defaults on Debt They Helped Hide” Feb 24, 2010):

…credit-default swaps, effectively let banks and hedge funds wager on the financial equivalent of a four-alarm fire: a default by a company or, in the case of Greece, an entire country. If Greece reneges on its debts, traders who own these swaps stand to profit.

“It’s like buying fire insurance on your neighbor’s house — you create an incentive to burn down the house,” said Philip Gisdakis, head of credit strategy at UniCredit in Munich.

Crazy, right? Legal, oh yes. Perfectly. These days. (see here)

As I wrote about in an earlier post, I’m reading Jacques Barzun’s history of our past five hundred years (“FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE 1500 to the Present/500 Years of Western Cultural Life”).  Today, reading the Times story, I recalled something I just read in the Barzun book.

He is describing the 16th century Protestant Reformation,  a revolution against the widespread (Perfectly. Legal.) institutional decadence of the time:

The system was rotten. This had been said over and over; yet the old hulk was immovable. When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur; it is a technical label.

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Would Nietzsche say bravo? Rome’s poor horses

Posted on the February 23rd, 2010

When I took this photo in Rome a couple of weeks ago, I felt a bit of a louse. The horse doesn’t exactly look happy, and here I was flashing a camera a few feet from its face.

Today when I saw the article at ANSA.IT about the city of Rome issuing new regulations to ease the lives of the buggy horses there, I felt some sense of vindication, even though irrational, probably (“Rome gives buggy horses a break” Feb 22, 2010).

“The new regulations were adopted after a series of accidents over the past few years, which have seen horses maimed in the line of duty.

In addition to limiting the horse’s work-day to a maximum of eight hours with mandatory breaks during the hottest hours of the day, the city ordinance mandates regular check-ups by city-approved veterinarians.”

Animal rights activists aren’t satisfied with these regulations, according to the article, which quotes Animalisti Italiani head, Walter Coporale:

“We’re not going to stop lobbying until we get them off the streets for good,” said Walter Coporale.

“It simply isn’t conceivable for horses to be carting people around in 2010,” he said.

Coporale suggested that the city should have gone further in its regulations and allowed the buggy horses only along the shady trails of parks.

All this brings back to mind the compelling story of Nietzsche’s last sane act, which leading scholars insist is mythical. From the website Nietzsche Circle:

On January 3, 1889, Nietzsche collapsed in a piazza in Turin. It is oft repeated that he saw a coach-driver beating his horse, threw his arms around the horse in tears, and collapsed; however, this is but another apocryphal legend that cannot be corroborated with absolute verity. Italian Nietzsche scholar Verrecchia investigated and disputed this tale, which was originally published in an Italian newspaper somewhat akin to the Daily News called Nuova Antologia.

Whatever the doubts of the scholars, they can no more prove this didn’t happen, than its proponents can prove it did. So, going with my heart — I’ve read Nietzsche, I admire Nietzsche, and I say it did.

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Georgia on their minds

Posted on the February 23rd, 2010

Today, in the first video of a series, TOL showcases a cross-section of citizens of the country of Georgia. Each one talks about his or her idea of what civil society actually is. May seem dull fare but, as usual, when people speak from their hearts in ordinary language about something important, it isn’t (“The View from Tbilisi: Change from the ‘Bottom Up'” by Tako Paradashvili and Nia Kurtishvili, Feb 22, 2010).

TOL is a non-profit organization focusing on the post-communist countries of Europe and the former Soviet Union. Intro to video:

As democracy in Georgia continues to develop 19 years after independence, how do Georgian citizens view their personal and collective responsibilities? Is civil society capable of fighting for people’s rights, and how well has it succeeded? To what extent do Georgians recognize and capitalize on the power they have to monitor their government and take part in building the country’s future?

(Perhaps it will occur to you, as it immediately did to me, that these same questions apply as well to the older democracies — to the United States at more than 200 years old, and to those of Western Europe — especially as some are facing a critical and defining turning point in their development –see here and here.)

What Is Civil Society? from Elene Asatiani on Vimeo.

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Polish women move toward equality at turbo speed

Posted on the February 22nd, 2010

The traditional, pre-dominantly Catholic society of Poland is being revolutionized by some of the country’s strong women, according to an article by Jan Puhl last week in Spiegel Online International (“‘Turbo-Emancipation’/
Polish Women Enjoy Post-Communist Success” Feb 18, 2010).

The article profiles a few of these leaders. One is Ewa Wieczorek, the editor-in-chief of the leading women’s magazine in Poland, Wysokie Obcasy (High Heels). Puhl describes the publication as “a cross between a high-brow cultural magazine and Cosmopolitan.”

“Articles describe people cheating on their spouses and women taking on traditionally male professions. They are about abortion, pornography and sex during pregnancy. They write headlines like “A Woman is Not a Lamp,” an opinion piece in which the writer argues that women should not have to respond to demands of sex, like a light being switched on.

They are the kinds of subjects that still shock many in a deeply Catholic country like Poland.”

Puhl writes that the magazine’s success signifies the huge, post-communist change in Poland:

In the last 20 years, Polish women have achieved as much as women in the West took many decades to achieve. For women in Poland, the end of communism translated into a sort of turbo-emancipation.

The article also includes interviews with a leader of the women’s rights movement in Poland, Agnieszka Graff, and with one of the country’s business icons, Irena Eris.

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Moving forward, Iceland chooses a different path

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

Keeping an eye on Iceland, which was hard hit early on in the 2008 financial crisis, I saw this article today at The National (“Iceland looks to green, innovative income sources” by Ben Quinn, Feb 19, 2010).

The small country is now plotting a comeback with some new and different ways, according to Quinn. Excerpt:

Over the past 12 months, scores of businesses have gone bust, unemployment has gone from being virtually non-existent to over eight per cent and the misery from a wave of home repossessions has been allayed only by a government moratorium.

According to entrepreneurs like Guðjón Már Guðjónsson, however, the very fact that Iceland’s economy is starting almost from scratch makes it the perfect laboratory for green ideas.

“We are rebooting the complete financial and political system of an entire western European country, so we have some unique opportunities,” said Mr Guðjónsson, the founder of Ministry of Ideas, a think tank dedicated to finding innovative ways to lift the country out of its predicament.

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Number one song in Italy this week: “Baciami ancora”

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

For the week of February 6 -13, Jovanotti’s exquisite “Baciami Ancora” (Kiss me again) is number one on Italy’s Hit Parade Top 100 (Il blog di Chartitalia). The song is from the newly-released film of the same name.

Lyrics here (in Italian).

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We can fix our broken system: Lawrence Lessig talks to Ezra Klein

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

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A British novelist argues that you and I can speak Wall Street if we try

Posted on the February 19th, 2010

John Lanchester’s newly-released book “Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay” is getting raves from critics. One reviewer described it as “Acidic, frightening, and sharply funny.”

The subject of the nonfiction book is the craziness of the world of contemporary finance, and how the lunacy came to be.

Earlier this month, Lanchester offered a peek into the material of his book when he spoke at an event sponsored by the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London. I’m especially taken by Lanchester’s ideas because his thesis — my own favorite one — is that we as citizens can and must become informed.

The video is below and I hope you will watch it. As an inducement, I’ve excerpted a few comments.

In his opening remarks, Lanchester alludes to the longstanding idea of the two cultures of arts and science and the gap between them. He suggests that this gap no longer exists, but another one does:

It seems that there’s a much bigger gap between the world of finance and the general public, and that there’s a need to narrow that gap if the financial industry aren’t to become a kind of priesthood administering to its own mysteries and feared and resented by the rest of us. Lots of bright, literate, functioning well-educated people… have no idea about all sorts of economic basics of a type that financial insiders take as elementary knowledge about how the world works…

To people who don’t, as it were, speak finance the language can seem impenetrable and the interlocking ideas too complex to grasp or unpack. I’ve become very preoccupied by this gap which seems to me a real problem not least because the idea of a democracy implies an informed electorate. If you don’t have an informed electorate, which I would argue that we don’t really in this area, then the democracy is thinner, and I tried to do my bit in addressing that gap by writing about it.

Lanchester goes on to describe the faulty mathematical models used by those in today’s finance world. He details their persistent refusal to acknowledge the undeniable proof during recent decades that these models were broken. And, after describing the magnitude of the errors that occurred in 2008, he adds:

That is so wrong you just can’t put it into words. It shouldn’t be humanly possible to be that wrong. We’re talking about a drop in house prices causing people with bad credit to have trouble paying back their mortgages. And they managed to turn that into literally the most unlikely thing in the history of the universe.

And the really outrageous thing is that the banks are still talking about it as if they were unlucky.  As if it were some sort of freak, perfect storm or 100 year event, which is what the bank chairman in the U.S., has just been telling Congress. That’s absolute rubbish — it’s like closing your eyes and trying to run down the strand without opening them and then complaining that you’re unlucky when you get hit by a bus.

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Italians’ standing ovation for Susan Boyle

Posted on the February 18th, 2010

Susan Boyle was a special guest on Tuesday night at San Remo 2010. The video here of her performance includes a short intro describing her rise to fame, and a short on-stage  interview after her performance (in Italian with English subtitles).

Straordinaria! (as you will hear):

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Want to keep up with the news and practice your Italian at the same time?

Posted on the February 17th, 2010

Last spring when I was traveling to Rome every week day to study Italian, I always stopped by a newsstand on Wednesday to pick up the latest copy of Internazionale.

As the website’s about page says:

Every week Internazionale publishes in Italian the best of the world’s press, covering politics, economics, culture, science, and technology. All the articles, chosen by a team of experts, appear unabridged from over 300 daily, weekly, and monthly publications.

The magazine offers a good amount of online content gratis.

It’s an excellent magazine.  Many of the articles are translated from English (Western) publications, but Internazionale also includes a good sampling from publications in other languages, which is a very good thing, I think. Not to mention, it’s a great and informative way to practice your Italian reading skills, if that’s your interest.

And, no, they’re not paying me to for this endorsement. It’s just one reader’s natural enthusiasm for a good thing found.

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His clarifying vision of who we are: Jacques Barzun

Posted on the February 17th, 2010

Here at my Passing Comments blog, my mission (usually) is to write about news events, and ideas, and people that express human potential at its most intelligent and creative. I avoid (usually) focusing on the negative for its own sake, primarily because it’s done far better in so many other places than I ever could (not sarcasm). If that sounds Goody Two-Shoes, so be it.

Even in blogging recently about the current financial crisis (seemingly) threatening the European Union and its monetary system, I’m digging for the pony buried beneath all the shit (the expletive fits precisely).

And in this post you’re reading, I have to say I’m as pleased with my book find as with any other person, place or thing I’ve featured. I know I’m a little late in my discovery —  it was first published in 2000. But I have to say I feel a bit sorry for those who read it (way) back then, because it seems to me to be an even richer experience to travel through its pages exactly now in 2010.

The book I’m referring to is the magnificent…exhilarating “FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE 1500 to the Present/500 Years of Western Cultural Life” by Jacques Barzun.  I’m only in the first pages of this opus so I won’t rush to description. But so far I’ve found no pointers toward despair, only clarity and some praise.

Barzun was in his eighties when he wrote the 877-page history. In an interview with Roger Gathman, Barzun explained why he wrote the book so late, and described it (“The Man Who Knew Too Much” The Austin Chronicle, Oct 13, 2000):

It is a history, a plain cultural history, with no special theory or gimmickry about it. When I was just beginning to teach at Columbia, after my dissertation, I thought I would write a history of European culture from 1789 to the present. I was dissuaded from it by a friend of my father’s who was the director of the Bibliotheque Nationale. I was doing research there and he asked me what I was doing, and I told him, and he said, “Oh, young man, please don’t do any such thing. You’ll write about things that you know at first hand, and you will fill the rest out with things you get out of secondary texts. There’s no need of that at any time.” So I said, “How long should I study original works before I begin?” He said, “Well, why don’t you wait until you are 80.” I think I waited until I was 84, 85.

From the book, excerpt one:

“Borrowing widely from other lands, thriving on dissent and originality, the West has been the mongrel civilization par excellence. But in spite of patchwork and conflict it has pursued characteristic purposes–that is its unity–and now these purposes, carried out to their utmost possibility, are bringing about its demise. This ending is shown by the deadlocks of our time: for and against nationalism, for and against individualism, for and against the high arts, for and against strict morals and religious belief.”

And excerpt two, explaining why we are in decline:

“But why should the story come to an end? It doesn’t, of course, in the literal sense of stoppage or total ruin. All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.

It will be asked, how does the historian know when Decadence sets in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths. Dozens of cults have latterly arisen in the Christian West: Buddhism, Islam, Yoga, Transcendental Meditation, Dr. Moon’s Unification Church, and a large collection of others, some dedicated to group suicide. To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts: fighting nuclear power, global warming, and abortion; saving from use the environment with its fauna and flora (‘Bring back the wolf!’); promoting organic against processed foods, and proclaiming disaffection from science and technology. The impulse to PRIMITIVISM animates all these negatives.

Such causes serve to concentrate the desire for action in a stalled society; for in every town, county, or nation, it is seen that most of what government sets out to do for the public good is resisted as soon as proposed. Not two, but three or four groups, organized or impromptu, are ready with contrary reasons as sensible as those behind the project. The upshot is a flaming hostility to things as they are…”

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Happy Valentine’s Day from Rome

Posted on the February 14th, 2010

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Italian photographer Masturzo wins first place for 2009 photo

Posted on the February 13th, 2010

An Italian photographer, Pietro Masturzo, has won the premier award at the 53rd annual World Press Photo Contest. The photo was taken in Tehran last June. It shows a woman shouting in protest from a rooftop.

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In a Greece kind of mood

Posted on the February 12th, 2010

“Nobody knows you when you’re down and out” (1997) – Eric Clapton

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Tough words from chief wonk at European Central Bank: Jürgen Stark

Posted on the February 12th, 2010

Continuing to try and find the god/devil in the details of what the European Union is doing or not doing to help the oh-so-ailing Greece, I came across some helpful clues supplied by Jürgen Stark, the European Central Bank Chief Economist.

In an interview in today’s Spiegel Online International, Stark faces some grueling questions and is unshakable in his tough love fiscal perspective (“‘Everyone Is a Sinner at the Moment'” Feb 12, 2010).

Topics covered include, of course, Greece’s teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, plus the debt of other member states of the EU, and the health of the Euro itself these days.

One of the first questions was about how safe the Euro is at present. Stark’s reply:

Stark: We have been in a global crisis for more than one-and-a-half years now. We still can’t say whether it’s over. But you could just as easily apply your question to other regions. No one talks about whether the United States could break apart because of California’s ailing finances. So let’s not take things too far!

SPIEGEL: Washington and the US central bank, the Fed, would certainly intervene before allowing California to go bankrupt.

Stark: To be honest, I don’t see that they would do that. There are many examples to the contrary in the history, including American history.

If you want info about the Greece-EU-Euro situation, other than the one-note dirge that’s commonplace in the headlines of USA and UK news coverage, this interview’s a good place to begin. (For earlier posts on this topic, go here and here)

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Feb 2010 snowfall in Rome: snowbird

Posted on the February 12th, 2010

Rare snowstorm in Rome.

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Rare snowfall in Rome (2010)

Posted on the February 12th, 2010

We woke up to a snowfall in progress this morning. For the Rome area, the last snowstorm was five years ago, according to La Repubblica (“Forte nevicata a Roma.l’ultima volta cinque anni fa” Feb 12, 2010).

Excerpt: (translation)

First flakes of snow in Rome, as was forecast: in some quarters it began to snow a few minutes before 8 this morning. An exceptional event for the capital city: it hasn’t happened for several years. The snow is falling even at the Trevi Fountain and in Rome’s historic center. The snow flakes are big and the mantle is sticking to the streets. The snowstorm has hit all the quarters in the southern part of the city, from EUR to the center. Completely blanketed in snow are the Castelli [Romani] area, the zone of Pomezia and, partially, even the airport of Ciampino. In some streets of the center, around the Termini train station, the tops of the trees are snowcovered.

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Did you know President Dmitry Medvedev has a blog? Cool!

Posted on the February 11th, 2010

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev not only has a blog, he has a video blog (vlog).  I mean, dude!

Latest entry is yesterday. Topic is photography, a passion of his apparently. More interesting, I think, is the vlog below that he posted last July. He reviews the Russian-American relationship (English translation).

UPDATE: (July 3, 2011): Sorry — the link to the video posted at the time this post was written is now invalid. The video is no longer posted on President Medvedev’s blog.

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