a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

How to keep that 2012 New Year’s resolution

Posted on the December 28th, 2011

Human routines are stubborn things, which helps explain why 88% of all resolutions end in failure, according to a 2007 survey of over 3,000 people conducted by the British psychologist Richard Wiseman. (Wall Street Journal, 2009)

New Year’s Day:  Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions.  Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.  ~Mark Twain (quotegarden.com)

 

Notwithstanding the dismal prognosis of the first quote above, and the blackly humorous perspective of the second one, I will be making a couple of resolutions when I raise my glass of spumante in a New Year’s toast a couple of days from now. And I suspect in doing so I will be among the majority in the Western world.

Old habits die hard, you  might say. And that is one of the points of the Wall Street Journal article, excerpted above. In particular the article recounts some recent studies about will power. And in spite of its gloomy opening paragraph, the report also offers some hope.

In effect, it’s not that there are superhumans among us who simply have amazing will power, it’s that these humans seem super because they’ve learned how to cleverly manage the same meager will power we all share. The research the WSJ cites shines a light on how that’s done. And the good news is that anyone can do it.

To read that good news, read the full article here (it’s short).

I also unearthed a one-minute video on how to keep our resolutions by the psychologist Richard Wiseman quoted in the WSJ article. Click on the screenshot below to watch it.

And I leave you with a dash of optimism from Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Ellen Goodman, who probably knows a bit about will power.

We spend January 1 walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched.  Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives… not looking for flaws, but for potential.

Happy New Year, or as they say in my part of the world… Buon Anno!

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SPECK ‘N U: 21 (Marcelo Gleiser)

Posted on the December 5th, 2011

From “A Tear At The Edge of Creation” by Marcelo Gleiser

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Breathtaking four minutes and thirty-two seconds: Paul Bunyard

Posted on the November 30th, 2011


Click on screenshot above to watch video

“Chasing the Light,” by Paul Bunyard
“Montage of clips taken during 2010 & 2011 whilst on my projects all shot on DSLR Canon 7D & Canon 60D”

 

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Romano Prodi calls out Germany

Posted on the November 30th, 2011

It is a brilliant stroke by Romano Prodi in an interview yesterday with Spiegel Online International when he parries a challenge from the interviewer by asking bluntly “Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?”

The interviewer has just referred to German PM Angela Merkel’s stated opposition to eurobonds, and to Germans’ fear that it is primarily Germany that will carry the financial burden for the bonds. Excerpt:

SPIEGEL: …By now, Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be completely isolated, with all partners exerting huge pressure on her. Will that be effective?

Prodi: That is the way politics works. But let’s be rational. Is Germany better off with the euro or without it?

SPIEGEL: With the euro.

In a later section of the interview, the subject of a “two-speed” Europe comes up. Here also, Prodi offers an interesting perspective. And he goes on to talk about a major criticism that he says he hears increasingly voiced about Europe’s power globally.

You can read the full Q&A here, which also includes some discussion of the current and past state of things in Italy.

I do wish Prodi hadn’t retired from Italian politics (and I’m not the only one).

 

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Who wants to leave the Euro?

Posted on the November 11th, 2011

Surely I’m not the only one to take notice that the bulk of the doomsday talk these days about the imminent fall of the euro is coming either from outside Europe or from eurosceptics.

An underlying assumption of this dire talk, perhaps, may be the idea that eurozone citizens are so discontented that they are demanding return to national currencies. But where is there evidence of this?  Even most Greeks, supposedly mad as hell at EU leadership, reportedly want to stay with the euro (see here, for example).

And, although it’s admittedly an anecdotal report, I can say I’ve not heard or seen either a peep or a scribble of any such San Pietro! let’s return to the lira talk here in Italy either. That is, except for the usual disgruntled voices of the northern far right who, more or less, want to exit everything including the southern half of their own country.

And then this just now in the UK Guardian‘s live blog on the eurozone crisis:

1.47pm: Almost four out of five Germans believe the 17-nation single currency will survive, according to poll for ZDF television. Some 78% of people asked said the euro would survive despite its problems while 56% felt chancellor Angela Merkel was doing a good job of managing the crisis. That’s an improvement on a similar poll in October which had her approval rating at 45%.

How much of a role does the European public play in the rise or fall of the euro? I have no idea really, given the murky fog that constitutes most financial reporting, and the politicians’ backroom political jockeying. But if eurozone voters’ support is needed to drive the currency into collapse, seems to me that’s a non-starter.

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Beware of Greeks cradling democracy

Posted on the November 3rd, 2011

This morning while reading a couple of analyses about the great Greek referendum brouhaha, the shade of John Lennon floated past murmuring “Democracy is what happens while politicians are busy making other plans.”

Might that be the case if the Greeks are allowed to vote on the EU’s latest proposal to rescue/doom them into penury for years to come? Wouldn’t that be nice (shades of the Beach Boys just now floated by). Messy? Maybe yes, but maybe not.

The two informative commentaries mentioned above are “Time to resign Mr Papandreou” by Greek economics professor Yanis Varoufakis (here), and “Papandreou shows no regret as he faces a grilling from Sarkozy and Merkel” by the Guardian‘s Helena Smith (here). They offer differing perspectives on the Greek PM. Varoufakis scorns his government leader’s latest referendum maneuver as political ploy only. Smith, in contrast, casts Papandreou more admirably, as in this quote from an unidentified “adviser”:

He is not afraid to upset others if he firmly believes it is in the interests of his country. And as a committed socialist George really does believe in the value of participatory democracy.

Well, notwithstanding that Varoufakis makes powerful argument to the contrary, we can hope that Smith’s featured adviser may prove to be auspicious. That whether mere political operator or democracy’s champion, Papandreou will by hook or crook give the people a voice. That would be true democratic process, wouldn’t it?

Imagine.

 

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Wikileaks needs you

Posted on the October 25th, 2011

As for me, I prefer to make my own decisions about who I do or don’t support, rather than allow banks and credit card companies to make them for me.

Click on image above to play video.

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‘Twas a yellow rose…*

Posted on the October 16th, 2011

From “Aurora Leigh” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

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SPECK ‘N U: 20 (Carl Safina)

Posted on the October 14th, 2011

From “The View From Lazy Point” by Carl Safina

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SPECK ‘N U:19 (Carl Safina)

Posted on the October 14th, 2011

From “The View From Lazy Point” by Carl Safina

 

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What do we mean by language? (Madalena Cruz-Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham)

Posted on the September 6th, 2011

 

If someone asked you, “Do you know what the pro in pronoun stands for?” would you know the answer?

Or, perhaps, “What is the most irregular verb in English?”

Or maybe, “Do you know why (with exceptions, of course) we can add er or est to some adjectives for purposes of comparison but we must use more or most with others. As in:

largest country
most populous country

The answers are nestled in “The Language of Language” (2011), a compact work by two linguistics scholars, Madalena Cruz Ferreira and Sunita Anne Abraham. The origin of the book, according to the preface, was a series of lectures by Cruz-Ferreira to university undergrads.

But as the book assumes no familiarity with linguistics, it’s also an illuminating read for language enthusiasts or the randomly curious. Some samplings: What are the nuts and bolts of how language itself – any language, not just English – is built and developed by its expert caretakers, the professional linguists, and by users themselves? Why do some languages live and others die? What distinguishes one language from another?

The three questions I posed in the opening above offer more examples of the many explored in the book. What is especially fun — works great as a word game — are the dozens of boxed questions running through the chapters. Some are riddles:

The owner of a restaurant, fed up with regular customers asking for meals on credit, one day put up this sign:

Free meals tomorrow only

Can you explain why his customers first became all excited and then very disappointed?

Here’s another:

Can you explain the language play in this dialogue?

Speaker A: Time flies!

Speaker B: I can’t, they fly too fast!

Hint: the play has to do with nouns and verbs.

For those tired of the usual car travel games with restless children, these boxed riddles offer a wonderful and painlessly-instructive alternative.

The most enjoyable features of the book, though, for me are the “Food for thought” sections at the end of each chapter. Here the authors include famous, scholarly and funny quotes about language, and poems on wordplay and pronunciation quandaries.

Excerpt:

“We sometimes take English for granted
But if we examine its paradoxes we find that
Quicksand takes you down slowly
Boxing rings are square
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

If writers write, how come fingers don’t fing?
If the plural of tooth is teeth
Shouldn’t the plural of phone booth be phone beeth?
If the teacher taught,
Why didn’t the preacher praught?”

But lest I mislead by highlighting  the book’s entertaining content, it’s important to emphasize that “The Language of Language” is a substantive scholarly work. In the authors’ own words from the Preface:

Our main purpose in this book is to explore the nature of language, both as a social phenomenon and a human cognitive ability. Our goal is to encourage informed thinking about issues relating to language structure and use, by discussing as broad a sample as possible, in a book of this size, of the kinds of activities that linguists busy themselves with.

Finally, for those who are still stumped by the questions at the top of this post, I offer the answers to the first two, as provided by Cruz-Ferreira and Abraham: The pro in pronoun stands for proxy (as in substitute). And the most irregular verb in English is to be – it can appear in eight different forms: “am, are, is, was, were, being, been and be itself!”

But for question three, I opt to refer you to the book. The first reason being that the answer is rather complex and lengthy (hint – see page 58). And the second reason being that I highly recommend that language lovers and parents of young children buy this book (linguists have to eat too, you know).

Cybershoppers can find the book here.

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Stopping by Rome’s MAXXI on a September afternoon

Posted on the September 4th, 2011

Popped into Rome this afternoon to have our first look at the MAXXI museum which opened only last year. Full name: MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts.

As the name reveals, the MAXXI’s official mission is to celebrate modern art and architecture (see website here). The museum was designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid.

I liked the reflection of the blue sky, white clouds and nearby buildings in the museum’s big window high above, so I snapped a few photos, as you see.

The Guardian has a slide show here, if you want to see more.

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SPECK ‘N U: 17 (Emily Dickinson)

Posted on the August 29th, 2011

* From “Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters” edited by Thomas H. Johnson

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The dumb economics of opting out of the Eurozone (Protesilaos Stavrou)

Posted on the August 27th, 2011

Impressively concise assessment of what it means to belong to a currency union — in this case the Euro — offered this week by Protesilaos Stavrou, a young European studies student from Cypress (“Should Germany leave the euro and let others crash and burn?” Aug 27, 2011).

Excerpt:

Countries in a currency union are interconnected, since they have first abolished all or most of the trade barriers between them, their economies have practically merged into a single market and their banking sector, as well as other important sectors of the economy, are organically linked. Severing a part of this “organism” will doom both the part and the whole just as if a vital organ is removed from the human body where both die.

The reason that is true is because the country that opts out will trigger a chain effect in the banking sector and in all other sectors it can influence, which will see private banks and other corporations falling one after the other just like in a domino.

Read full post here.  (Saw this link at Bloggingportal.eu)

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How do you run a Chinese Bank?

Posted on the August 21st, 2011

It’s not at all hard to find China in the news headlines, given that increasing numbers of people — experts and ordinary citizens — reportedly see it fast arriving as the world’s new superpower.

Highly detailed views from particularly informed experts, however, are not so plentiful. A lengthy video discussion recently between Carl Walter of JP Morgan and Victor Shih of Northwestern University, hosted by G+, is “spectacular” (per MacroBusiness.com) and informative.

For me, one of the most thought provoking observations comes in the first video (starts at 13:44). Walter describes the reaction of the Chinese government to the 2008 financial crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers. At that point, the highly alarmed Chinese, according to Walter, lost all faith in the Western financial model.

Summing this up, Walter says:

The Chinese want to have a clear model that they can try out and see if it works and then expand on, and now that [Western model] financial system is gone…

Watch the full discussion here, posted on MacroBusiness. Note — the comments section is also interesting.

 

 

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SPECK ‘N U: 16 (Emily Dickinson)

Posted on the August 4th, 2011

From “The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson” (1960), edited by Thomas H. Johnson

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Tax rate for Italians one of world’s highest

Posted on the August 2nd, 2011

One of the key events on which the United States is founded is the historical act of citizens refusing to pay their taxes —  celebrated by patriots as the Boston Tea Party.  So it puzzles me a bit when I hear some of the descendants of these same brave revolutionaries routinely jeer at Italy as a place where people don’t pay their taxes.

One, the blanket condemnation isn’t true. Many Italians do pay their taxes. But for those who don’t, a chart published in the Globe and Mail last Friday offers some justification for the tax-dodging. It shows Italians being taxed at the third highest rate in the developed world (“Tax revenue as a percentage of GDP in the developed world” July 29, 2011).

Tax rates in the US, in contrast, are among the lowest, according to the chart, with the country ranking third from the bottom.

See chart here. (Saw link to this article on Informed Comment here).

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A little help holding up the leaning tower of Pisa

Posted on the July 29th, 2011

Creating special effects with their snapshots is especially popular when tourists visit Pisa and its famous leaning tower. On a trip there last May, photographer Tarcisio Arzuffi also found the temptation irresistible. With a little help from his friend Andrew, he framed a fun optical illusion.

Explaining how and why he created the photo, Tarcisio wrote:

Last May I spent a couple of days in Savona (Liguria) for a meeting. The weather was okay but a little cloudy and cold. I was hoping for better weather on the long six-hour trip back home to Rome. When I left with my friends Andrew and Walter it was just a gorgeous day.

We decided to take the coastal highway. Along the way, after passing the beautiful white marble caves of Massa Carrara, we saw the exit sign to Pisa, and since no one of us had ever seen the famous leaning tower we decided to take a detour.

The cathedral with the leaning tower is really worth seeing. We walked the whole “Campo dei miracoli,” the square around the cathedral, and then… I saw the photo: the light was great (6 p.m. I think the light is at its best, right where you want it). I only had to work a little on the composition with the help of Andrew so that his hands are in the right place and his feet also, so that it looks like he is really pushing the tower. I also found the right balance between the height of the tower and that of Andrew, and then the right zoom.

We rewarded ourselves with some awesome cones of gelato artigianale, the famous Italian ice cream, almost as famous as the leaning tower!

I hope this advice can be useful for those who will be coming to Italy and are planning a visit to the Tuscany region.

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SPECK ‘N U:15 (aging)

Posted on the July 26th, 2011

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SPECK ‘N U: 14 (Jon Kabat-Zinn)*

Posted on the July 16th, 2011

* From the book “Wherever You Go, There You Are” by Jon Kabat-Zinn


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