July 17, 2014

Venice as an urban model

Filed under: Europe, History, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:46

James Lileks just spent a few weeks in Venice and he says it’s (still) an astonishing place:

Urbanists often use European cities as a model for everything that’s right and true and good about cities. American cities are spread out, so people have to drive along, instead of standing on a public transport next to a man who is muttering about chemtrails and has the personal funk of a Dumpster outside a urinalysis lab. European cities are compact, with everyone living on top of one another in picturesque piles with the square footage of the average American auto trunk. European cities are Walkable, which is the chief virtue nowadays. Well, ancient Rome was Walkable. A collection of Neolithic huts was Walkable. Apparently American cities are strewn with tacks and rattlesnakes and feature large open pits with spikes on the bottom. No one can walk there.

There’s one city no one seems to hold up as a model, and that’s Venice. I was just there for a while, and it’s an astonishing place — for reasons we can surely adapt here.

One. No cars. It is simple to ban cars from all streets with Venice-style zoning, which ensures that most streets are three feet wide. You couldn’t get Orson Welles down these passageways without greasing both sides and shooting him out of a cannon. There are streets in this town where two people who meet going the opposite way cannot pass, but local customs dictate that the person who is taller gets down on hands and knees and the other person climbs over him. No car can enter the streets of Venice unless you lower it into a plaza with a helicopter.

Two. It is quite walkable, and your journeys will give you that marvelous sense of discovery and surprise the urbanists seek. By which I mean, you will be lost. The maps are no help; you’re on a small street named Contradore Della Caravaggissimo Magiori di Luchese, and the map shows C. del Car.Ma.Lu, if you’re lucky. And it’s in the type that makes the bottom line of an eye chart look like a tabloid headline the day war is declared.

Three. It is better than walkable: it is swimmable, and thus provides an excellent form of exercise. Remarkably, the concept of swimming from your house to work never seems to have been popular, for the same reason most people don’t bike to work: You arrive at the office wet and smelly.

April 1, 2014

Losing a debate? Demand that your opponents be locked up!

Filed under: Environment, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:57

Not, I’m afraid, an April Fool’s Day story:

Finally, someone has come up with a way to settle the debate over climate change: Put the people on the wrong side of the argument in cages.

A writer for the website Gawker recently penned a self-described “rant” on the pressing need to arrest, charge and imprison people who “deny” global warming. In fairness, Adam Weinstein doesn’t want mass arrests (besides, in a country where only 44% of Americans say there is “solid evidence” of global warming and it’s mostly due to human activity, you can’t round up every dissenter). Fact-checking scientists are spared. So is “the man on the street who thinks Rush Limbaugh is right. … You all know that man. That man is an idiot. He is too stupid to do anything other than choke the earth’s atmosphere a little more with his Mr. Pibb burps and his F-150′s gassy exhaust.”

But Weinstein’s magnanimity ends there. Someone must pay. Weinstein suggests the government simply try the troublemakers and spokespeople. You know, the usual suspects. People like Limbaugh himself as well as ringleaders of political organizations and businesses that refuse to toe the line. “Those malcontents must be punished and stopped.”

Weinstein says that this “is an argument that’s just being discussed seriously in some circles.” He credits Rochester Institute of Technology philosophy professor Lawrence Torcello for getting the ball rolling. Last month, Torcello argued that America should follow Italy’s lead. In 2009, six seismologists were convicted of poorly communicating the risks of a major earthquake. When one struck, the scientists were sentenced to six years in jail for downplaying the risks. Torcello and Weinstein want a similar approach for climate change.

This is a great standard for free speech in America. Let’s just agree that the First Amendment reads, “Nothing in this clause shall be considered binding if it contradicts legal practices in the Abruzzo region of Italy.”

The truth is this isn’t as new an outlook as Weinstein suggests. For instance, in 2009, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman insisted that “deniers” in Congress who opposed the Waxman-Markey climate change bill were committing “treason” while explaining their opposition on the House floor. (That same year, Krugman’s fellow Timesman Thomas Friedman wrote that China’s authoritarian system was preferable to ours, in part, because it lets “enlightened” leaders deal with climate change.)

March 18, 2014

Updating David’s sling, outraging Italian politicians

Filed under: Business, Europe, Media — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:41

Virginia Postrel diagnoses the real reason politicians are upset about Armalite’s updated image of David’s armament:

David and the Armalite

Italian authorities were indignant when they discovered that the Illinois weapons maker ArmaLite had an advertising campaign showing Michelangelo’s David holding one of its rifles. “The advertisement image of an armed David offends and violates the law,” tweeted tourism minister Dario Franceschini. Angel Tartuferi, director of the Accademia Gallery, which houses the sculpture, agreed: “The law says that the aesthetic value of the work cannot be altered.”

This moral posturing is clearly about something other than respect for the sculpture’s “aesthetic value” or “cultural dignity.” Otherwise, officials would crack down on the David boxer shorts sold by countless Florentine vendors. And where was the outrage in 1981, when the David was flogging Rush brand poppers, amyl nitrite drugs used to enhance sexual pleasure, in magazines aimed at gay men?

It seems that it’s fine to use the David to sell things as long as you emphasize his nudity rather than his meaning.


ArmaLite’s ads broke the unwritten rules. Instead of highlighting the hero’s body, they emphatically made him a warrior. Hence Franceschini’s objection to an “armed David,” even though every David is armed. “David famously used a slingshot to defeat the giant Goliath, making the gun imagery, thought up by the Illinois-based ArmaLite, even more inappropriate,” writes Emma Hall in Ad Age.

To the contrary, the gun imagery, while incongruously machine-age, was utterly appropriate. David did not use a “slingshot.” He used a sling. As historians of ancient warfare — and readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath — know, a sling was no child’s toy. It was a powerful projectile weapon, a biblical equivalent of ArmaLite’s wares.

July 14, 2013

Calcio Storico – historical Florentine ball game

Filed under: Europe, History, Sports — Tags: — Nicholas Russon @ 12:44

BBC News Magazine looks at a historical relic of Florentine history:

Florence - Calcio Storico action

No one knows exactly when “Calcio Storico” — historic football — was first played here, but its pitch, the piazza of Santa Croce, dates from the 14th Century and the rules of the game — in so far as there are any — were written down in the late 1500s. The four quarters of the city — Santa Spiritu, San Giovanni, Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce, named for their great local churches — each put up a team of 27 men.

The aim, over two heats and a final, is for players to get the ball over the 4ft (1.2m) fence at either end of the pitch. To achieve this, players can use both hands and feet, as well as every other part of the body when it comes to wrestling, punching and generally immobilising their opponents on the way. In other words — sport as muted warfare.

A 15th Century Florentine would still recognise much of the event. Each game is preceded by trumpet fanfares and marching drums as costumed dignitaries and flag-throwers in the rich hot renaissance colours of their teams march from their various quarters to the piazza. The only concession to sartorial modernity — the players’ coloured t-shirts with sponsors’ logos — are off within minutes of getting onto the pitch, so that all one can see is naked upper torsos, caked with sand and sweat, hurling themselves at each other, as the crowd roars its approval and each goal, or caccia, is greeted by cannon fire.

The addition of tourism has done little to blunt the edge of civic competition and not-so-benign thuggery that comes with it. Time travel works both ways, and watching from my window as the teams arrive (in the Renaissance most respectable women wouldn’t have been allowed out anyway), you get a distinct whiff of a darker, more physical past, where the streets were often full of excess testosterone looking for action.

July 10, 2013

Operation Husky, 1943

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:11

Was the invasion of Sicily by the allies in 1943 a strategic error?

Seventy years ago this week, U.S. and British Commonwealth troops began Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Foreshadowing D-Day 1944, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower served as overall Allied commander. Like D-Day, Allied airborne soldiers led the Husky assault by parachuting (on the night of July 9, 1943) into olive groves and rock-strewn fields along the island’s southeastern shores. On July 10, seven divisions — three U.S., three British and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division — launched an amphibious attack on a 100-mile long front. Despite several successful Axis air attacks on ships and a brazen Italian tank attack on U.S. positions near Gela, by midnight July 10 all seven divisions were ashore.

Putting seven divisions ashore so swiftly was an extraordinary coup. Oh, grievous errors occurred as the buildup proceeded, the most notorious being the July 11 downing of 23 U.S. transports by Allied anti-aircraft fire. The planes were ferrying paratroop reinforcements. Yet in its initial phases Husky demonstrated that the Anglo-American team had learned a great deal since the Operation Torch landings in November 1942. Planning and coordination had improved. North African combat had honed the skills of American forces.

[. . .]

The Sicily campaign placed Allied troops less than 10 miles (the strait’s width) from mainland Italy.

The oh-so-close proximity of large Allied forces to Italy was enticing. And that enticement leads to the biggest historical question tagging Operation Husky: Was taking Sicily the best strategic choice, since it made an invasion of Italy inevitable? From south of Naples to the Po Valley, Italy’s rugged and rocky terrain is a defender’s delight and attacker’s sorrow.

Winston Churchill had sold Sicily as the next logical step. Sicily was the classical route to Rome from North Africa, and knocking fascist Italy out of the war would deal Adolf Hitler’s Axis a heavy political loss.

Sicily geographically dominates the central Mediterranean. Husky’s advocates noted that for three millennia the island served as the stepping stone of to-and-fro commerce and war between North Africa and Europe.

American military leaders were not convinced. The decisive route to Berlin goes through France — make the all-out effort there. Churchill also claimed Europe had a “soft underbelly.” Italian and Balkan terrain is not soft. Several senior U.S. planners thought Churchill was really trying to defend British imperial interests.

Axis-controlled Sicily had served as a big aircraft carrier for attacking Allied shipping. Under Allied control, those bases would extend air cover to northern Italy and Sardinia. U.S. planners agreed that Husky made operational sense if the goal was securing air bases. But can we stop there, at the strait? Sicily’s hard slog was costly. A strategic thrust up Italy’s mountainous spine will be as just slow and deadly.

And indeed it was.

July 5, 2013

The secret army of monitors who fed Enigma signals to Bletchley Park

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:20

The BBC remembers the volunteer radio tinkerers who helped win the intelligence war in Europe:

One day, towards the start of World War II, a captain wearing the Royal Signals uniform knocked on a British teenager’s door.

The 16-year-old was called Bob King. When he went to greet the visitor, he had no idea that soon he would become one of Britain’s so-called “voluntary interceptors” — some 1,500 radio amateurs recruited to intercept secret codes broadcast by the Nazis and their allies during the war.

“The captain asked me if I would be willing to help out with some secret work for the government,” remembers Mr King, now 89. “He wouldn’t tell me any more than that.

“He knew that I could read Morse code – that was the essential thing.”

[. . .]

By mid-1941, the new base, Arkley View, was receiving about 10,000 message sheets a day from its recruits.

“I worked for five years scrutinising the logs that came in from the other amateurs — thousands of log sheets with the signals which we knew were wanted, and you could only know it from experience,” remembers Mr King.

“We knew it wasn’t Allied army air force, we knew it was German or Italian — various things gave that away, but it was disguised in such a form that it looked a bit like a radio amateur transmission.

“We knew it was highly important, everything was marked ‘top secret,’ but only many years later we discovered that it was German secret service we were listening to.

“Of course you didn’t ask questions in those days, otherwise you’d be in real trouble.”

Encoded messages were transmitted to Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, the UK’s former top-secret code-cracking centre.

Once decoded, the data was sent to the Allied Commanders and the UK Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

June 19, 2013

Examining Vermouth’s claim to being the “oldest wine in the world”

Filed under: Health, History, Middle East, Wine — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:13

History Today linked to an article in their archives from 1975 from Pamela Vandyke Price discussing the ancient provenance of Vermouth:

When the great vermouth establishments refer to their product as ‘the oldest form of wine in the world’, they are not exaggerating. If we could travel in time, we might find many of the wines praised in antiquity to be harsh, sour and coarse to our palates, but the ‘aromatized wine’ that we know as vermouth would then have existed and, even if we drank it for medicinal or preventive reasons rather than for enjoyment, we could recognise it and relate it to the vermouths of today.

Vermouth can be, and often is, made wherever wine is made. The ancient Egyptians used both wine and beer, plus juniper, frankincense, celery, lotus leaves and honey, in the treatment of certain ailments; and it is by a method of infusion, maceration, distillation, or two or all three of these processes that, essentially, vermouth is made today. In Book IV of the Odyssey, Helen throws a drug given to her by an Egyptian lady into the bowl in which the wine is to be mixed and diluted before dinner; this ‘had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories’ — an efficacious aperitif, assuring good digestion. At the end of the third millennium B.C. what is perhaps the first written doctor’s prescription is recorded in cuneiform script on a tablet from the Sumerian city of Nippur — a physician notes that certain powders should be infused with a type of wine.

[. . .]

Other families in the drink business were quick to see the possibilities for vermouth, setting up in Turin, Marseilles and Sete (again in proximity to mountain herbs and a quantity of wine), and in Chambray. Many of them are still family concerns, even though they are great empires of the drink business. Martini & Rossi, who were founded about 1840, replaced a much older concern making vermouths and liqueurs at Pessione, near Turin (the head of that firm was the grandfather of Giovanni Angelli, founder of Fiat); the superb museum now established alongside the Pessione installations is a necessary detour for anyone interested in the history of wine from the earliest times.

The Cinzano family began in the drink business in the sixteenth century, and in 1757 the brothers Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo were invested as Master Distillers in Turin; today their business is gigantic, including, among other things, the Florio concern at Marsala, (itself including the former cantinas of Ingham and Woodhouse). Louis Noilly, in business at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Lyons, set up in the vermouth trade with his son-in-law, Claudius Prat and they enjoyed so much success that by 1843 they moved their headquarters to Marseilles. Madame Josephine Prat, who ran the business after the deaths of the two founders, was succeeded by her two children; and her granddaughter, Vicomtesse Vigier, who entered the firm before 1939, directed it until 1970 when she died, over a hundred years old.

It seems a little odd that, with so many modifications of wine-making and changes in the tastes of drinkers, aromatized wine should still be in demand. But, in fact, it is increasingly so. Whenever people order a straight vermouth they are ordering the oldest wine in the world.

March 4, 2013

Are we approaching the end of the aircraft carrier era?

Filed under: Europe, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:31

At the Thin Pinstriped Line, “Sir Humphrey” looks at Spain’s all-but-certain exit from the ranks of carrier-equipped navies:

In Spain for instance the veteran carrier Principe De Asturias (PDA) has finally been paid off after some 25 years service as part of budget cuts. It is perhaps ironic to consider that she was originally conceived in the early 1980s as a cheap ‘Sea Control Ship’ solution originally looked at by the US Navy to provide cheaper carriers. Intended to put ASW helicopters to sea as a replacement for the Delado, she represented the closest any nation has perhaps come to a truly ‘austere’ carrier, with minimal support facilities for the airwing. Optimised in the first for ASW, with a very limited fixed wing capability using the Harrier (although never to the same level of development as the UK with the mixed FA2 / GR7 airwing), the PDA was an example in the 1980s of how smaller ‘harrier carriers’ could be built for emerging middle tier navies, providing them with airpower at relatively small cost. In reality she remained the sole of her class built around the world, with the closest other example being a Thai vessel optimised for EEZ protection and to act as a Royal Yacht.

Although the Spanish have built a large LPH, with carrier facilities (the Juan Carlos) as a second platform relatively recently, she is not an aircraft carrier in the conventional sense, and with the Spanish economic crisis deepening, it seems likely that PDA will not be directly replaced by another ‘proper’ aircraft carrier.

Similarly, with the emphasis on Juan Carlos as an assault ship, it seems likely that the small fleet of Spanish harriers (less than 15 airframes) will be increasingly vulnerable to defence cuts in an economy which is desperately struggling. The chances of seeing a credible Spanish fixed wing aviation capability beyond the next few years seem slim, and at a time when they are struggling to afford sustaining a relatively small buy of Eurofighters, it seems hard to envisage introduction of the JSF too.

So, Spain is perhaps the first carrier casualty of the economic crisis, although Italy is also looking increasingly vulnerable. The Guissepe Garibaldi is now nearly 30 years old, and again is unlikely to be directly replaced. Mindful of the recent cuts to the Italian Navy which will see a near 20% cull in manpower, and significant loss of hulls across the fleet, it again seems less and less likely that a credible carrier aviation capability can be sustained in a single hull (the Cavour). Having seen both these nations enter the ‘Carrier Club’ in the 1980s, one cannot help but wonder if they will be leaving it as full time members in the not too distant future?

Spanish navy's Juan Carlos and Principe de Asturias
Juan Carlos and Principe De Asturias

Update: BBC News is reporting that the US Navy is planning a new class of UAV carriers:

The new project has been dubbed Tern (Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node) after a sea-bird known for its endurance.

Darpa programme manager Daniel Patt, said: “Enabling small ships to launch and retrieve long-endurance UAVs on demand would greatly expand our situational awareness and our ability to quickly and flexibly engage in hotspots over land or water.”

He added: “It is like having a falcon return to the arm of any person equipped to receive it, instead of to the same static perch every time.”

February 26, 2013

Why did Machiavelli write The Prince?

Filed under: History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:45

In History Today, Alexander Lee discusses the situation in Florence leading up to the time when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote his (in)famous work:

In 1512, however, everything fell apart. After a series of military defeats, Soderini was forced from office. With the help of Pope Julius II, Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici was installed as the de facto ruler of Florence. The Republic collapsed.

Immediately, Giuliano purged the government and instituted a city-wide witch-hunt. As a prominent republican, Machiavelli was summarily dismissed from his positions in late 1512, and in 1513, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Accused of plotting against the Medici, he was tortured using a cruel technique known as the ‘strappado’ — which left his shoulders dislocated, and his whole body in excruciating pain — before being released and exiled to his country estate.

It was at this point that Machiavelli penned The Prince. Broken, depressed, and penniless, he saw it as his best chance of getting into the Medici’s good books, and of recouping his losses. Dedicating the book first to Giuliano di Lorenzo de’ Medici — the very man who had destroyed his life — and, after Giuliano’s death, to his nephew, Lorenzo, Machiavelli set out to provide not just a guide to princely government, but a positive justification of all of the terrible things to which he had fallen victim. Much like a fallen Politburo members at a Soviet show trial, Machiavelli defended his persecution in the hope of securing favour. Only later did he feel safe enough to express his republican sympathies more openly.

February 16, 2013

The socialist origins of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 11:13

Everyone “knows” that Fascism is an ideology of the extreme right, and Communism is an ideology of the extreme left. Benito Mussolini’s fascist state was bankrolled by big business and the Catholic Church to suppress the democratic demands of the workers in the wake of the First World War. Except that isn’t actually true:

… Mussolini was every bit as much as man of the Left as contemporaries such as Eugene V. Debs. He was what would later come to be known as a “red diaper baby” (meaning the child of revolutionary socialist parents). As a young man, Mussolini himself was a Marxist, fervently anticlerical, went to Switzerland to evade compulsory military service, and was arrested and imprisoned for inciting militant strikes. Eventually, he became a leader in Italy’s Socialist Party and he was imprisoned once again in 1911 for his antiwar activities related to Italy’s invasion of Libya. Mussolini was so prominent a socialist at this point in his career that he won the praise of Lenin who considered him to be the rightful head of a future Italian socialist state.

[. . .]

When the Italian Fascist movement was founded in 1919, most of its leaders and theoreticians were, like Mussolini himself, former Marxists and other radical leftists such as proponents of the revolutionary syndicalist doctrines of Georges Sorel. The official programs issued by the Fascists, translations of which are included in Norling’s book, reflected a standard mixture of republican and socialist ideas that would have been common to any European leftist group of the era. If indeed the evidence is overwhelming that Fascism has its roots on the far Left, then from where does Fascism’s reputation as a rightist ideology originate?

[. . .]

During its twenty-three years in power, Mussolini’s regime certainly made considerable concessions to traditionally conservative interests such as the monarchy, big business, and the Catholic Church. These pragmatic accommodations borne of political necessity are among the evidences typically offered by leftists as indications of Fascism’s rightist nature. Yet there is abundant evidence that Mussolini essentially remained a socialist throughout the entirety of his political life. By 1935, thirteen years after Mussolini seized power in the March on Rome, seventy-five percent of Italian industry had either been nationalized outright or brought under intensive state control. Indeed, it was towards the end of both his life and the life of his regime that Mussolini’s economic policies were at their most leftist.

After briefly losing power for a couple of months during the summer of 1943, Mussolini returned as Italy’s head of state with German assistance and set up what came to be called the Italian Social Republic. The regime subsequently nationalized all companies employing more than a hundred workers, redistributed housing that was formerly privately owned to its worker occupants, engaged in land redistribution, and witnessed a number of prominent Marxists joining the Mussolini government, including Nicola Bombacci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party and a personal friend of Lenin. These events are described in considerable detail in Norling’s work.

It would appear that the historic bitter rivalry between Marxists and Fascists is less a conflict between the Left and the Right, and more of a conflict between erstwhile siblings on the Left. This should come as no particular surprise given the penchant of radical leftist groupings for sectarian blood feuds. Indeed, it might be plausibly argued that leftist ”anti-fascism” is rooted in jealously of a more successful relative as much as anything else.

January 14, 2013

Insufficient bribes and transport aircraft

Filed under: Government, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:35

Strategy Page on the sad-but-predictable situation in Afghanistan:

Afghanistan recently announced that it would cancel the contract to buy and use 20 C-27A transports. The official reason was the inability of the Italian maintenance firm to keep the aircraft operational. The unofficial reason is the unwillingness of the Italians to pay as much in bribes as the Afghan commanders were demanding. Over half a billion dollars was being spent on buying and operating these aircraft and all the money was coming from the United States. Afghan government and air force officials were determined to grab as much of that cash as possible. That meant there was not enough money for the spare parts and tools needed to keep the C-27As flying. The Afghans can be self-destructive in so many ways, and letting these transports get away because not enough could be stolen from the contracts was another example of this.

More self-destructive behavior is expected. The Western donor nations are getting fed up with the increasingly aggressive Afghan corruption. Last year, as the Afghans asked for more military aid, the donor nations instead cut contributions. The Afghans were told that the aid would be reduced from $11 billion a year to $4.1 billion a year between 2012 and 2017. That would only change if, by some miracle, the Afghans managed to get their thieving ways under control. Currently, the Afghans will go to great lengths to get around donor auditors and anti-corruption measures. The C-27A was a case of everyone just giving up. Expect to see more cases like this.

September 15, 2012

Our collective maladjusted attitude to small risks

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:44

Tim Harford shows that you can learn a lot about economics by looking at the process of hiring a rental car:

Here’s a puzzle. If it costs €500 to hire a €25,000 car, how much should you expect to pay to hire a €50 child’s car seat to go with it? Arithmetic says €1; experience suggests you will pay 50 times that.

This was just one of a series of economics posers that raised their heads during my summer vacation – indeed, within a few minutes of clearing customs in Milan. One explanation is that the apparently extortionate price reflects some unexpected cost of cleaning, fitting or insuring the seat – possible but implausible. Or perhaps parents with young families are less sensitive to price than other travellers. This, again, is possible but unconvincing. In other contexts, such as package holidays and restaurants, children with families are often given discounts on the assumption that money is tight and bargains keenly sought.

[. . .]

After paying through the nose for the car seat we were alerted to a risk. “If your car is damaged or stolen, you are liable for the first €1,000 of any loss.” Gosh. I hadn’t really given the matter any thought but the danger suddenly felt very real. And for just €20 a day, or something like that, I could make that danger vanish.

[. . .]

What’s happening here? Behavioural economists have long known about “loss aversion”: we’re disproportionately anxious at the prospect of small but salient risks. The car hire clerk carefully created a very clear image of a loss, even though that loss was unlikely. I haven’t paid such fees for years and have saved enough cash to write off a couple of hire cars in future.

June 25, 2012

Euro 2012: “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.”

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Soccer — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:58

I watched yesterday’s game with a deep sense of foreboding … that it just might come down to penalties. Again. Richard Littlejohn obviously felt the same way:

We might have guessed it was always going to come down to penalties. We’ve been here before.

There was a grim inevitability about England’s elimination from Euro 2012 on penalties. And Italy deserved their victory. But that’s not to pretend it still doesn’t hurt.

Every two years, I kid myself I don’t care. Why invest emotional energy in a bunch of footballers? It’s only a game.

When England kicked off against France 10 days ago, I feigned indifference. So what if England lose? Life goes on. World Cups, European Championships, it’s bound to end in tears.

But England didn’t lose. They drew with France, beat Sweden and Ukraine, finished top of their group and qualified for the quarter finals. Suddenly, it mattered. Three more wins and four and a half decades of bitter disappointment and under-achievement would be consigned to history. Football’s coming home.

Against my better judgment and years of experience I discovered I did care after all. As England progressed and last night’s game against Italy approached, the pulse began to quicken, the optimism returned. This time we really could be in with a chance.

To be honest, it was better when England stuck to the script and crashed out of tournaments prematurely, consumed by hubris and an inflated sense of their own abilities. We’re used to being let down. We can handle it. As John Cleese said in the movie Clockwise: ‘I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.’

H/T to Nick Packwood for the link.

June 13, 2012

“… there simply aren’t enough lifeboats!”

Filed under: Economics, Europe — Tags: , , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:18

Nigel Farage speaking in the European Parliament:

Another one bites the dust. Country number four, Spain, gets bailed out and we all of course know that it won’t be the last. Though I wondered over the weekend whether perhaps I was missing something, because when the Spanish prime minister Mr Rajoy got up, he said that this bailout shows what a success the eurozone has been.

And I thought, well, having listened to him over the previous couple of weeks telling us that there would not be a bailout, I got the feeling after all his twists and turns he’s just about the most incompetent leader in the whole of Europe, and that’s saying something, because there is pretty stiff competition.

Indeed, every single prediction of yours, Mr Barroso, has been wrong, and dear old Herman Van Rompuy, well he’s done a runner hasn’t he. Because the last time he was here, he told us we had turned the corner, that the euro crisis was over and he hasn’t bothered to come back and see us.

I remember being here ten years ago, hearing the launch of the Lisbon Agenda. We were told that with the euro, by 2010 we would have full employment and indeed that Europe would be the competitive and dynamic powerhouse of the world. By any objective criteria the Euro has failed, and in fact there is a looming, impending disaster.

You know, this deal makes things worse not better. A hundred billion [euro] is put up for the Spanish banking system, and 20 per cent of that money has to come from Italy. And under the deal the Italians have to lend to the Spanish banks at 3 per cent but to get that money they have to borrow on the markets at 7 per cent. It’s genius isn’t it. It really is brilliant.

So what we are doing with this package is we are actually driving countries like Italy towards needing to be bailed out themselves.

In addition to that, we put a further 10 per cent on Spanish national debt and I tell you, any banking analyst will tell you, 100 billion does not solve the Spanish banking problem, it would need to be more like 400 billion.

And with Greece teetering on the edge of Euro withdrawal, the real elephant in the room is that once Greece leaves, the ECB, the European Central Bank is bust. It’s gone.

It has 444 billion euros worth of exposure to the bailed-out countries and to rectify that you’ll need to have a cash call from Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy. You couldn’t make it up could you! It is total and utter failure. This ship, the euro Titanic has now hit the iceberg and sadly there simply aren’t enough life boats.

May 19, 2012

Salvage operation on Costa Concordia to cost more than £200 million

Filed under: Europe — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:45

The Telegraph headline says £200 million, but the scrap value of the vessel must be much lower than that:

The operation is due to start in the next few days and is expected to take a year, with the battered ship to be towed to an Italian port in one piece and then dismantled for scrap.

“This is the largest ship removal by weight in history,” said Richard Habib, the president of Titan Salvage, the American company that has been given the job of raising the 1,000ft-long, 114,500 tonne cruise liner.

“The magnitude of the job is unprecedented. But we feel confident that we can do it and do it safely, with the least disturbance to the environment and the economy of Giglio.” The Concordia has been wedged on rocks and semi-submerged just a few yards from the coast of Giglio, an island off Tuscany, ever since it ran aground on the night of Jan 13.

[. . .]

The two companies’ plan for removing the wreck involves extracting the huge chunk of rock embedded in its side and patching up the torn hull.

Engineers and divers will then construct an underwater platform beneath the ship.

They will also fix steel compartments or ‘caissons’ to the side of the ship that is out of the water.

Two cranes will slowly pull the ship upright so that it rests on the submerged platform.

The caissons will be filled with water to help the cranes lift the massive weight of the ship.

Once the vessel is upright, more chambers will be attached to the other side of the hull.

All the caissons will then be emptied of water and filled with air, which will stabilise the ship in preparation for it being towed to a nearby port for demolition.

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