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December 30, 2012

Sassi di Matera

The Sassi di Matera (meaning "stones of Matera") are ancient cave dwellings in the Italian city of Matera, Basilicata. Situated in the old town, they are composed of the Sasso Caveoso and the later Sasso Barisano.
Matera has gained international fame for its "Sassi". The Sassi originate from a prehistoric (troglodyte) settlement, and are thought to be the second oldest city in the world.

The Sassi are houses dug into the rock itself locally called "tufo". Many of these "houses" are caves, and the streets in some parts of the Sassi are located on the rooftops of other houses. The ancient town grew in height on one slope of the ravine created by a river that is now a small stream. The ravine is known locally as "La Gravina".

In the 1950s, the government of Italy forcefully relocated most of the population of the Sassi to areas of the developing modern city. Riddled with malaria the unsanitary conditions were considered a shame for Italy. However, people continued to live in the Sassi, and according to the English Fodor's guide:
Matera is the only place in the world where people can boast to be still living in the same houses of their ancestors of 9,000 years ago.
Until the late 1980s this was considered an area of poverty, since these houses were, and in most areas still are, mostly unlivable. Current local administration, however, has become more tourism-oriented, and has promoted the re-generation of the Sassi with the aid of the European Union, the government, UNESCO, and Hollywood: one of the benefits of the ancient city, is that there is a great similarity in the look of the Sassi with that of ancient sites in and around Jerusalem. This has caught the eye of film directors and movie studios.
Principally due to this reason the Sassi were the set of many films, as for example "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" (Pasolini, 1964), "King David" (Bruce Beresford, 1985), "The Passion of the Christ" (Mel Gibson, 2004) and "The Nativity Story" (Hardwicke, 2006).

Ernesto Sirolli: Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!

In this funny and impassioned talk, he proposes that the first step is to listen to the people you're trying to help, and tap into their own entrepreneurial spirit. His advice on what works will help any entrepreneur.

December 25, 2012

Spanish Crisis Video

For those wondering what is happening in Spain worth checking this good documentary on the Spanish Crisis and its construction bubble crash:

December 16, 2012

How successful is your country?

Goldman in his recent study notes that the competitive strengths of companies often stem from the advantages of the countries they reside in.

These include a combination of resource availability (food, energy, mining and others), demographics, trade positioning, infrastructure quality and above all, the presence of strong, inclusive institutions that encourage innovation.

So, what follows is Goldman's attempt to map the various success drivers of the world’s countries.

Goldman divides the drivers into four categories:

Patents per capita, R&D as a percentage of GDP, venture capital as a percentage of GDP and the birth rate of companies.

Confidence in national institutions, days aken to enforce a contract, the cost of starting a business and the GINI co-efficient that measures income inequality.

Net crude oil exports/(imports) as a percentage of consumption, per capita food surplus/(deficit), copper + iron ore + aluminum surplus/(deficit) and retirees as a percentage of population.

Transport (airports per capita, railways per sq km), electricity production per capita and internet penetration.
Italy again scores among the worst countries in Europe just after Greece; in brief its institutions are weak, Internet penetration is appalling and when it comes to enforce contracts; it is the worst country in Europe and far behind many third world countries like Nigeria or Kenya who rank much better than Italy on this aspect.

The overall scorecard...

and a close up on Europe... (click image for huge version)

Source: Goldman Sachs

December 5, 2012

New Tiburtina Station Rome

Tiburtina station is becoming the main stop on long distance and high speed trains increasing its visitors from 22 to 50 million annually. 
The new design is a bridge over the existing spinal chord of the rail tracks. It aspires to be a station at international level and a meeting point at neighbourhood level. It is a bridge but also an urban boulevard that is reconnecting two areas that had long been separated by the tracks: the residential Nomentano and the more rundown Pietralata.
The Bridge-Station is designed with flexibility of space in mind: inside, suspended multi purpose volumes have been created and vertical support structures have been eliminated to help reduce the impact of vibrations coming from the trains whizzing past below. Similar to the tongue of a bell, thanks to gravity each suspended space soften the vibrations transmitted by the container.
The station is a 240m long glass parallelepiped raised 9m above the ground, measuring 50m in width at a constant height of 10.5m. The 8 floating rooms housing cafés, VIP lounges, control rooms and restaurants are connected to the ground level by escalators and lifts and to the other volumes by a runway along the side of the bridge. The 2 squares at either side of the entrances to the station have been redeveloped to accommodate the offices of Italian railways, a new metro line, a bus terminal, a shopping centre, offices and parking spaces.

Europe at a glance: Drunkest, fattest, laziest countries

Some interesting updated stats on Europe courtesy of the The Washington Post

Despite common perceptions that the French sip wine all day or that Scandinavians muddle through the long winters with the aid of aquavit, Luxembourg actually tops the list of Europe’s alcohol consumers, with nearly 15.3 liters bought per capita annually — a 12 percent increase since 1980. (The OECD points out, however, that foreigners actually purchase much of that because of Luxembourg’s lower-than-average alcohol taxes.) Not counting Luxembourg, Latvia and Romania top the charts of alcohol consumption among adults:
Screenshot: OECD

Meanwhile, the supposed dolce vita of the Italians has become more temperate. They’ve reduced their alcohol consumption by nearly 60 percent since 1980, to a modest 6.9 liters.
And even though higher taxes and more rigid advertising laws have caused alcohol consumption in the E.U. to decline by 15 percent since 1980, the region still has the highest level of alcohol consumption in the world, and alcohol is the third leading risk factor for disease there, after tobacco and high blood pressure.
The problem is that as parts of Europe sober up, other countries have been drinking more — and new types — of alcohol:
There has been a degree of convergence in drinking habits across the European Union, with wine consumption increasing in many traditional beer-drinking countries and vice versa.

The rate of obesity has doubled over the past 20 years in the E.U., to 17 percent, making it a “major public health concern,” the authors write. Hungarians are the most obese people in the E.U., at 28.5 percent, closely followed by Britain.
Hungary’s neighbors, the Romanians, are the most svelte:
Screenshot: OECD

The authors note the use of taxes on fat and sugar — such as those recently passed in Finland, France and Hungary — as potential solutions. However, one such measure in Denmark was recently repealed after it was found to have too detrimental of an impact on consumers and businesses.

Physical activity:
Overall, only one in five children in the E.U. member states say they exercise regularly. The study didn’t measure physical activity among adults, but if sedentary children become pudgy grown-ups, the Italians are in trouble. Just 7 percent of girls and 12 percent of boys there reported daily physical activity, while the Austrians were most active:
Screenshot: OECD

Source: Washington Post
Health at a Glance Europe 2012

Italy is the most corrupt developed country

Here the new report on world corruption, the Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2012, outlines how corruption is a major threat.
Corruption destroys lives and communities, and undermines countries and institutions.
The Corruption Perceptions Index scores countries on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean).
While no country has a perfect score, two-thirds of countries score below 50, indicating a serious corruption problem in the world.
Italy ranked 72nd worst than South Africa,Bosnia Ghana and Macedonia, the only developed country aside from Greece to be ranked so bad.
 In Transparency's words: "Corruption amounts to a dirty tax, and the poor and most vulnerable are its primary victims."

Corruption translates into human suffering, with poor families being extorted for bribes to see doctors or to get access to clean drinking water. It leads to failure in the delivery of basic services like education or healthcare. It derails the building of essential infrastructure, as corrupt leaders skim funds.

November 21, 2012

Key Global Events

Interesting chart with all major incoming events for the next 5 years.

Election Events...

and the next 12 months events:

Source: SocGen

The tallest building in the world in 90 days

China is trying not only to establish a new world record when it comes to empty buildings but now even with construction time, the tallest building in the world in 90 days.
Just wondering how long it will take to fill it up after construction.

Gizmodo reports China Will Build the Tallest Building In the World in Just 90 Days.
According to its engineers, this will be the tallest skyscraper in the world by the end of March of 2013. Its name is Sky City, and its 2,749 feet (838 meters) distributed in 220 floors will grow in just 90 days in Changsha city, by the Xiangjiang river. Ninety days!

It's not a joke. According to the construction company, the skyscraper will be built in just 90 days at the unbelievable rate of five floors per day.

Pre-Fab Magic

They will be able to achieve this impossibly fast construction rate by using a prefabricated modular technology developed by Broad Sustainable Building, a company that has built 20 tall structures in China so far, including the a 30-story hotel [constructed in 360 hours - see link for time-lapse video].

Record numbers

Unlike the Burj Khalifa, the tower will be mostly habitable. Its final height will be 2,749 feet high (838 meters). Compared that to the Burj's 2,719 feet (829 meters), which include the spire at the top resulting in a total of 163 floors.

Sky City will use an astonishing 220,000 tons of steel. The structure will be able to house 31,400 people of both "high and low income communities". The company says that the residential area will use 83-percent of the building, while the rest will be offices, schools, hospitals, shops and restaurants. People will move up and down using 104 high speed elevators.

The record figures don't stop there: in addition to the 90-day construction time—as opposed to the 210 days initially reported by the Chinese media—the company claims it will cost $1,500 per square meter as opposed to the Burj's $15,000 per square meter, all thanks to the prefab technology.

They also claim it will be able to sustain earthquakes of a 9.0 magnitude and be resistant to fire for "up to three hours," as well as be extremely energy efficient thanks to thermal insulation, four-panned windows and different air conditioning techniques that were already used in their previous constructions.
Artist's Rendition

November 14, 2012

Troika's Forecasts

For those who still believe in forecasts!

Trust and productivity

Relatively recent academic evidence explains how productivity works in places with underdeveloped legal institutions and cultural norms.
In 2009, Hsieh Chang-Tai and Peter Klenow found that a big part of the reason why China and India are so much poorer than the United States is that wildly unproductive firms are more likely to survive in those countries than in America.
After running a novel experiment, Nicholas Bloom, of Stanford University concluded that these firms were so unproductive because they were horribly managed (as opposed to having worse workers or inferior equipment). He speculated that the unproductive firms were able to survive because better-managed businesses were limited in their ability to expand thanks to uncooperative capital markets and, intriguingly, a dearth of trustworthy managers.

The problem is not the absence of people who know how to run businesses but the society at large.

In another paper, Mr Bloom and his colleagues argued that entrepreneurs in poorer countries are reluctant to trust people who are not directly related to them to manage any part of their enterprises. They are afraid that people from outside the family will steal from them and that the judicial system will not protect them. This (not unjustified) fear limits the ability of good firms to expand. Once you run out of siblings and cousins, you can't open more factories. The result is that bad firms are not driven out of business. Conversely, countries with higher levels of "social capital," i.e., trust, generally have higher productivity and are therefore richer, precisely because good firms have more resources available to drive out the bad ones and increase the standard of living through creative destruction.

This was the inspiration behind Paul Romer's ill-fated Charter Cities project, which ran aground in Honduras. The goal was to import the values and institutions of societies with high levels of "social capital" to poor countries in the hope that it would allow them to become richer and more productive. Ironically, the Honduran mission failed precisely because the agency that was supposed to ensure transparency refused to allow outsiders to audit agreements made between the government and private firms.

Global Economic Indicators

Congratulations to Italy for scoring the worst GDP growth and worst unemployment, bets are open won how soon Russia and India will leave Italy behind.


November 11, 2012

Heather Brooke: My battle to expose government corruption

Our leaders need to be held accountable, says journalist Heather Brooke. And she should know: Brooke uncovered the British Parliamentary financial expenses that led to a major political scandal in 2009. She urges us to ask our leaders questions through platforms like Freedom of Information requests -- and to finally get some answers.
Worth listening carefully!

Spain considering eviction moratorium

El Pais (via Google translate) reports Government will give a two-year moratorium to end evictions.
Social pressure, political and, above all, the shock of facts so overwhelming as two suicides in recent weeks, the second on Friday, has led the government and the PSOE to move faster. Both contacts for accelerated progress towards an agreement to halt evictions more extreme than in any case, will not materialize until next week. That agreement, however, will not be retroactive and would apply to mortgages signed, but not those that are in foreclosure. It would not serve to cases like Egaña Amaya, the woman who committed suicide in Barakaldo.

The Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, solemnized the idea during an election rally in Lleida: "These days we see terrible things, inhuman situations, a person committed suicide when she would be evicted. It is a difficult subject, you have to take it with all seriousness and humanity. The government is talking to many people, we talked this morning with the PSOE. I hope we can talk on Monday of the temporary cessation of evictions affecting the most vulnerable families. And the threshold of exclusion, to better implement the code of good practice, so you can renegotiate the debt and remain in housing. It is a difficult subject, I hope we can give good news to the whole of the Spanish."

The problem with an eviction moratorium is obvious. People will have no incentive to pay their mortgages for the next two years. This will bring further stress the Spanish banking sector and in turn to the Spanish government.

November 8, 2012

Greek brothels booming ads adventures

This is what social collapse and degradation looks like, a local brothel became the head sponsor of a minor-league soccer club from Larissa. Now, the same brothel which appears to have seen a substantial return on its advertising spend, has decided to branch out... straight into a local elementary school. That's right: a whorehouse is advertising its "services" to children in an elementary school. In exchange for what? Money to purchase a Xerox machine and a library.
From Kathimerini:
After sponsoring a soccer team in Larissa, central Greece, brothel owner Soula Alevridou is now extending her financial support to a school in Patra, in the Peloponnese.

Following an open invitation for sponsorship launched by a Patra elementary school parents association, Alevridou pledged to donate 3,000 euros to the educational facility in order to cover for a series of operational costs, a daily Peloponnesian newspaper reported. According to reports, the funds would be used to purchase a photocopier and a library for the school.

Alevridou recently agreed to sponsor the Voukefalas team in Larissa, central Greece, paying more than 1,000 euros for the team’s players to wear jerseys carrying the “Soula's House of History” logo, AP reported.

Another brothel, Villa Erotica, had also agreed to sponsor the Larissa team.

October 7, 2012

Hagar Qim

Hagar Qim is a megalithic temple complex dating from the Ġgantija phase (3600-3200 BC). The Megalithic Temples of Malta are amongst the most ancient religious sites on Earth described by the World Heritage Sites committee as "unique architectural masterpieces." In 1992 UNESCO recognized Ħaġar Qim and four other Maltese megalithic structures as World Heritage Sites.

The lowest temple is astronomically aligned and thus was probably used as an astronomical observation and/or calendrical site. On the vernal and the autumnal equinox sunlight passes through the main doorway and lights up the major axis. On the solstices sunlight illuminates the edges of megaliths to the left and right of this doorway.
Although there are no written records to indicate the purpose of these structures, archaeologists have inferred their use from ceremonial objects found within them: sacrificial flint knives and rope holes that were possibly used to constrain animals for sacrifice (since various animal bones were found). These structures were not used as tombs since no human remains were found. The temples contain furniture such as stone benches and tables that give clues to their use.
Many artifacts were recovered from within the temples suggesting that these temples were used for religious purposes, perhaps to heal illness and/or to promote fertility.

Cyprus crisis getting ugly!

Cyprus' banks are in worse condition than imagined, and the bailout amounts has jumped again.
How can a tiny country get in so much trouble in such a short time?
The real-estate and construction bubble, fed by corruption and abetted by banks, burst two years ago. Home sales and prices have collapsed. Some 130,000 homeowners (in a country of 840,000 souls) are tangled up in a nationwide title-deed scandal.
It is estimated that 50,000 homes would be dumped on the market—though only 4,876 homes were sold during the first nine months of the year! Losses have gutted banks. Unemployment has reached record levels. And the construction industry, once a major employer, is being annihilated.
The index of building contracts, after a two-year downhill slide, has reached the lowest point in its history, and “activity is expected to continue dropping,” lamented the Federation of Associations of Building Contractors (OSEOK).
Contractors are going out of business. Over the last four months, the crisis has deepened. And now there are only enough pending construction projects for seven months, and after that, there are no projects.
Locked out from the financial markets since early summer 2011, Cyprus was bailed out by Russia last November with a €2.5 billion loan. In June, as the banks began to topple under a mountain of Greek debt and rotting mortgages, Cyprus asked for a bailout.
The Troika took a look and figured €6 billion for the banks and €4 billion for the government. €10 billion in total.
But in August, Central Bank Governor Panicos Demetriades told parliament that the banks alone would need €12 billion!
Then Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told last week: Cyprus would indeed seek a €15 billion bailout from the Troika, and an additional €5 billion from Russia, for a total of €20 billion.
A vertigo-inducing 107% of GDP.
But he cautioned that Russia and the Troika would need to coordinate the loans—thus throwing a monkey wrench into Christofias’ efforts to use the negotiations with Russia as a lever against the Troika to get a better deal and more lenient conditions.
Conditions that the Troika had already spelled out in a memorandum.
In short,  a privatization of state-owned enterprises, a 15% cut in the public payroll by the end of 2013, a 10% cut in benefits, elimination of the automatic Cost of Living Adjustments (CoLA) that index salaries to inflation, and an increase of contributions to pension plans.
The CoLA elimination would also hit private sector employees, as would the elimination of the 13th month salary.
“You cannot tell someone they won’t receive a 13th salary. It automatically means you paralyze the market” declared communist President Christofias during a TV interview.
He would, however, try to cooperate with the Troika. “We aren’t just saying ‘no’ to them,” he added. “We are giving them counterproposals.” They focus apparently on a VAT increase, a luxury car tax, taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, disincentives for public sector workers to take early retirement, and a 5% wage cut for those earning over €1,500.

October 6, 2012

Blue Grotto

Every day from sunrise until about 1 pm a unique sight can be observed here. The location combined with the sunlight lead to the water mirroring showing numerous shades of blue.

Julian Treasure: Why architects need to use their ears

Because of poor acoustics, students in classrooms miss 50 percent of what their teachers say and patients in hospitals have trouble sleeping because they continually feel stressed. Julian Treasure sounds a call to action for designers to pay attention to the “invisible architecture” of sound.

October 3, 2012

Marsaxlokk, Malta

Marsaxlokk is a picturesque fishing village on the south-east side of Malta, it has an ancient history being the site of a Roman temple dedicated to the goddess Juno, but no ancient remains are visible. On Sundays there is a fish market where one can get the best fish available, a particular local favourite is the Lampuki.
The sight of the traditional luzzu's (fishing boats built according to a design dating back to the Phoenicians) and the tranquil surroundings make this a very pleasant place to have lunch at one of the quayside restaurants.  

Fishing Boats
Marsaxlokk Bay


Amy Cuddy: Your body language shapes who you are

Body language affects how others see us, but it may also change how we see ourselves. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy shows how “power posing” -- standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident -- can affect testosterone and cortisol levels in the brain, and might even have an impact on our chances for success.

Tax collectors steal 100 million euro from the Italian Government

Employees protesting not being paid since 5 months

Another day another colossal fraud in Italy!
Today Mr. Saggese, the boss of Tributi Italia, a tax collection agency has been arrested for pocketing 100 million euro from taxes collected on behalf of over 400 Italian cities.
Mr. Saggese had been arrested twice in 2001 and 2009 nonetheless he become the director of Tributi Italia which was until recently the biggest collection agency in Italy with a revenue of 280 millions in 2008 and thousand of employees who have lost their job.
The agency is currently filing for a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, while the government has been considering a bailout of the firm.
His former administrator Mr. Cali' had been arrested in 2007 for a 93 million euro fraud against Banca di Roma while many of the auditors were not even qualified.
It did help of course to enrol government auditors and pay lavishly some inspectors to join the company, furthermore city administrators and councillors were granted luxury holidays and gifts to cooperate.
Tributi Italia was paid a commission of 30% of the amount collected and in some cases the commission went up to 75%.
According to investigators the amounts stolen were used in part to pay debts contracted with banks and more than 20 million euro were pocketed by Mr. Saggese.
Of course having control of so much money meant a lot of leverage power for Tributi Italia who was also able to dictate to municipalities to hire friends and relatives.
The 400 cities which took advantage of Tributi Italia services are either broke or in deep trouble and the final price is being paid by the citizens who are losing services and jobs.
The money has vanished and so far has not been traced yet.
Municipalities, regulation authorities, Ministry of Finance, government and regions were either blind, pretending to be blind or useless in controlling the largest tax collection agency in Italy.
This is again not an isolate case, many more scandals like this will rock Italy soon, let us not forget that Tributi Italia started to fail when austerity started to bite and reduced tax figures.
Corruption is surfacing because the economic crisis is stalling its engine.
Be prepared to enjoy soon more colourful tales from Douche Land!