Friday, December 28, 2007

Bhutto Killing

Just before Christmas, there was a rally in the small Sicilian town of Corleone against the Mafia. Corleone used to be the home of the Italian Mafia and Mario Puzzo even used the name as the surname of his fictional Mafia family in "The Godfather". Now, however, people are sick of the Mafia in Corleone and, young people in particular, want a Mafia free life. Their idealism is encouraging, but when we see the terrible things that happen in the Balkans, Iraq, the states of the former Soviet Union and Pakistan we should realize that the Mafia is a state of mind rather than an actual place and that it is by no means limited to Italy and America. The levels of lawlessness currently consuming Pakistan are extreme even for that bloody nation and the latest outrage has been the assassination of former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

It is difficult to believe that Bhutto and her husband Ali Zardari were totally innocent of the corruption charges that dogged them so persistently and caused the early termination of both Bhutto's spells as PM. At a conservative estimate, the Bhutto fortune is said to be over a billion US dollars and Zardari was famous during his wife's tenure in office for awarding contracts on the basis of kickbacks. It is impossible that Benazir Bhutto knew nothing of this: either she was actively involved with her husband's shady activities, or was complicit in her silence. Either way, it is clear that Bhutto was a woman with a fierce sense of pride and a genuine sense of destiny concerning her own right to direct the political destiny of Pakistan. Bravely, she returned when it would have been easier to enjoy her vast wealth in exile--and now she has paid the price.

Benazir Bhutto was a courageous woman and belonged to the genus of superstar politicians. She was never supposed to be successfully assassinated: near misses were all part of the Bhutto myth, but somehow the idea that a single suicide bomber could confound all that prestige and privilege never seriously occurred to anyone. Once again we are reminded of the fragility of life and how (to quote another victim of the bullet, John Lenin) life is something that happens to you "while you're busy making other plans".

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Calypso of the Appenine Way

Here is the conclusion to the first chapter of my novel.....

The whole conversation with its inevitable lack of transparency was beginning to bore me and I finished up my beer and ordered another one. Mario did the same, this time ordering beer. Eva was less than half way through her orange juice and Sharokh seemed to be deliberately going slow with his small beer.

“What’s the matter with you, Sharokh?” I enquired. “Do you intend to make that small beer last all night?” I understood that the Iranian would be driving Eva home and that he had a responsibility to not drink too much, but this in no way stopped me from taking a little fun; pot shots, at his expense.

“It is the car, John”. Sharokh replied in a matter-of-fact tone. “As you know, it’s only six months since I passed my test and I don’t want to drink too much as it could lead to a preventable accident. “Would you forgive me if we were in an accident and Eva was to be injured?” I looked at Sharokh’s face closely, but could detect no hint of irony on it.

“No, of course not”, I replied seriously. “You are certainly doing the right thing in not drinking too much. “On the other hand, I am unsure as to why you decided to get a house so far away from the centre of Parma. Wouldn’t it have been better to be more central?” At this point, Eva joined in the conversation.

“That question is easily answered, John. We took the apartment in Felino because it was far cheaper than anything we could find in Parma of a similar size and quality.” Of course, I was well aware that this had been the reason for their choice; but I was still in the mood to turn the knife in the wound a little.

“But surely, when you take into consideration the amount you pay for the car and petrol, it would have been cheaper to live in the centre.” Again, I knew that what I was saying was nonsense, but it was amusing to see Sharokh twisting around to explain his present impecuniousness. In the Shah’s Iran, his family had been related to the Royal Family and all of them would have been killed by the revolutionaries if not for their contacts who’d been able to convey them secretly out of the country: Sharokh and his brother to Perugia in Italy and his parents to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In Perugia, Sharokh had met Eva who had convinced him to come to Parma with her. Sharokh’s brother remained in Perugia as night watchman in a small hotel.

All this while, Sharokh had been staring at me in some irritation. “Surely, you know better than that, John. You are a driver yourself and you know that while the petrol is expensive, housing is a lot more costly. In Felino, I’d say we have everything we wish. It is a beautiful small village and the people are friendly too. We have already made friends with several couples who live nearby.”

Now it was my turn to get angry. “Oh yes, and who might they be? I must say Sharokh that it seems to me that you are making this drive to Parma on a very regular basis. Felino is an extremely backward place and the people are suspicious of strangers rather than friendly. As for these great ‘friends’ you have made, I’d be glad to know exactly who they are.” At this point, Eva made a hurried interjection.

“Sharokh is exaggerating. There is an Italian couple living in an apartment close to ours who we sometimes meet on Sunday afternoons for a drink and a game of cards in the local bar. There is really nothing to it.” At this point Sharokh interrupted Eva with a tightly constricted voice.

“Is it not true that we have been their guests for lunch and dinner on several occasions? Isn’t it also true that they’ll be coming over to eat with us tomorrow night? Certainly, I have come to regard them as friends and I think that you have too.” I was listening with attention and curiosity as Eva made her reply.

“Sharokh, they are acquaintances. Are we so desperate for friends and general acceptance here that as soon as we see someone a couple of times they are regarded as dear soul mates? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, we don’t want to spend all our time only with each other: that would be merely boring. However, try to keep things in perspective instead of forever spreading stories about new friends!”

I felt that Eva’s answer pretty much covered all the bases--and I was confirmed in this idea as I watched Sharokh sink into a lugubrious silence, a look of utter hopelessness etched on his features. At this point Mario seemed to wake up from his personal preoccupations and began to speak with Sharokh whom he had always viewed favourably due to the perception that they had both been ill-treated by fate in the same way. Of course, I was aware that the two really shared little in common. Sharokh had nobody but Eva to support him in Italy and the daily job he did in the factory was absolutely essential to his health and well-being. On the other hand, Mario, although his father had frightened him by making him work in a factory for a spell, was the favoured son of a rich engineer who would always make sure he was taken care of. Sharokh was also aware of these discrepancies, but as long as Mario was too naive--or perhaps just too young--to see them, he was happy to play the part of senior big brother on the factory floor who always had a younger colleague’s interests at heart.

“Sharokh, how much was your car?” asked Mario. “I am thinking of buying a second hand Fiat from one of my friends, but I’m not sure how much I should pay.”

“Our car was obtained at a special price through the help of a friend in Perugia”, answered Sharokh. “Tell me Mario, how old is the car you are thinking about buying?” Mario shook his head vaguely.

“I’m not exactly sure, but I’d say it’s probably at least ten years old. It could be more.”

Sharokh looked business-like. “In that case, don’t pay more than three or four million lire. How much is your friend asking?”

“He wants seven million lire”, Mario replied.

“Don’t pay it!” responded Sharokh decisively. “You will undoubtedly have engine problems with a car so old and very likely difficulties in obtaining parts as well. You will be tearing your hair out in a month if you pay such a price--and I can guarantee that you will no longer view this person who is selling you the car, as a friend anymore. Actually, I would advise you not to buy the car at all as it’s at least ten years old. I would advise you, rather, to look carefully for a car that is no more than five years old. You should be able to obtain such a car for no more than five or six million lire. I don’t think your friend is really doing you any favours by offering you his car at such a price.”

Eva and myself kept quiet during this discussion, not having the slightest interest in Mario’s intention to buy himself a second hand car. Personally, I was aware that the price was not of great importance as Mario’s father would pay as long as he was convinced of the necessity for his son to own a car.

“Thanks so much for your help, Sharokh”, responded Mario gratefully. I am sure that I would have foolishly bought that car at my friend’s asking price if not for having had this eye-opening little talk with you.” Sharokh laughed.

“My friend, please don’t think about it at all. Are we not brothers of the factory floor? What would comradely relations be coming to if one factory worker was not able to help another?” At these words Mario laughed and nodded.

“Yes, I still feel myself to be a factory worker. Most of my friends still work there and I have little in common with the people I am now mixing with in the Liceo. Once a worker, always a worker.”

I was fully aware how fatuous these words of Mario’s were--and so was Sharokh. However, we both felt a need to keep silent now. Confronting Mario with the obvious would do neither myself nor Sharokh any good. At this point, Sharokh asked me a loaded question.

“John, how is Eleonora these days? We haven’t seen her for so long. Is she still studying Law at the university during the day and then working in that office by night?” I took a quick glance at Eva’s pallid face before answering.

“Yes, she is fine and continues to study and work. In fact she should be finishing at the office in a few minutes.” Sharokh nodded enthusiastically.

“Why, isn’t the office just around the corner from here? Why don’t you go and get her and bring her here? It would be nice to chat with her after so long.” Eva looked uneasily from Sharokh to myself.

“Probably she is tired and hungry”, the German girl commenced. “We should allow her to eat and sleep.” Sharokh laughed.

“Well, she can eat here--sleep as well if she likes! Do go and get her John. I’d really like to see her.”
I glanced at Eva’s face and saw that it was hard and white. Sharokh was looking at me triumphantly, while Mario had a whimsical look on his face. To tell the truth, I actually wished to see her myself, so I slowly nodded my head.

“Yes indeed, why not. Order another round of drinks and wait for me here. I should be back in about ten or fifteen minutes.” I rose from my seat, thanked Paolo and walked to the door. Through the window I could see that it was now snowing harder than ever.

Dove vai?, enquired Paolo as I pushed open the door and made ready to plunge into the storm tossed night.
Vado per prendere Eleonora I explained to the old Sicilian, who in response gave me a knowing smile. bionda?

Si, I responded, suddenly tight and angry inside. Proprio la bionda. A presto. I left the comfort of the birreria and hurried back in the direction from which we had come.

As I walked quickly ahead, I could easily see that the street was now completely covered with a fresh coating of undisturbed snow. What on earth could I say to Eleonora to get her along to the birreria on a terrible night like this? Perhaps the mere knowledge of Eva’s presence there would act as a kind of challenge and make her come. However, I suddenly realised that there were no guarantees. It would be perfectly possible that she would refuse the outing and return to her warm apartment. I glanced at my watch: just coming up to ten. That meant I still had a few minutes. By the time Eleonora had checked everything and was ready to leave the office, the time had usually ticked around to at least five past ten.

At the end of the road, just past the cinema showing the movie about ‘The Doors’, I turned sharply to the left into one of the main thoroughfares of the town: Via Mazzini. Now I was once again protected by the great porticoes. Few people were to be seen traversing the great street--and the few that could be discerned were mostly hurrying along with their heads inclined and their eyes fixed upon their feet. I could find no obvious explanation for their behaviour except to think that perhaps they were minutely examining their shoes for storm damage that might show up in the light of day. Italians, as everybody knew, were neurotic about their shoes.
After about five minutes I ducked into the little boxed-in enclave where the entrance to Eleonora’s office lay and pressed the buzzer. After a wait of about ten seconds a familiar voice came on the intercom.

Si? Chi e’?

Sono Io. Apri la porta.

The door in front of me gave a sudden jerk and opened heavily. I pushed it forward and all the lights along the winding stairway suddenly lit up. For a moment I stood in the vestibule, a sudden feeling of stark fear unmanning me. Finally, however, I began the steep climb up to the first floor where Eleonora’s office lay. I knew that she would, in all likelihood be alone there, as most of the bosses left around nine-thirty, leaving the competent (if crazy) Eleonora to close up.

I wondered why I felt so nervous. When was the last time I’d seen Eleonora? I made a quick calculation and realised that it had already been more than a week. In a certain sense, a little bit of Eleonora went a long way. Nevertheless, most of my waking hours were filled with dreaming about her--and my dreams themselves were simply Eleonora’s: they belonged to her! She knew very well about the complete infatuation she created in men--and she fostered that craving. It might even be said that while her men lived off their infatuation for the beautiful red-haired girl, Eleonora herself got off on being the sole object of their infatuation. Nothing was more likely to end a relationship with Eleonora than the knowledge that a man who was with her was taking an inappropriate interest in another woman. She was Ulysses’s Calypso entrapping a man in her personal space and after that, never permitting him to leave again. Like Ulysses, her man might spend each day weeping on the shore, but the evening belonged to her--and her Queenly charms could never be resisted.

During the time it had taken for these thoughts to formulate in my mind, I’d reached the landing of the first floor and, glancing to the left where I knew the office to lie, I saw the familiar glass door with the painted message on it: Fernando Bertinotti, MD. Through the door, I could see Eleonora sat alone, behind her computer, at the secretarial desk. She was looking towards me and smiled as the temptress Circe might have smiled at Ulysses’s men before inviting them into her castle to become pigs.

I took a deep breath and walked in.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Comments from the TED Site

I had a lot of criticisms to make about Steven Pinker's talk on violence (on the TED site and embedded above). These comments were put up on the TED site--and naturally, lots of people disagreed. Part of the discussion is shown below (chronology moves from bottom to top):

Sandro Magi – December 18 2007
I'm glad we've converged. I don't think Pinker wanted to detract from the dangers of war, as we all know they can be quite devastating. Biological warfare stands to become particularly dangerous. I agree that state coercion is a serious problem, and I took Pinker's presentation as an appropriate counter-response to sensationalist media coverage and terrorist propaganda driving people to give governments enough rope to hang us with. Also, the less rope the government has, the more difficult it would be for them to unilaterally declare war and unleash nuclear horrors on the world. I think it's a worthy goal, and very much in line with your own ends. If anything, Pinker's presentation bolsters your own agenda for limiting state coercion, as any additional security or controls the state seeks are clearly unnecessary.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 18 2007
For me, the modern state's surveillance of the individual and perpetual threat of violence against bodies is a subtle extension of violence itself. If Pinker only wants to make the point that I am less likely to die at the hands of another male than in tribal society, then no doubt that is fair enough. On the other hand, his model doesn't take into consideration the fact that any future world war--unlike past world wars--is likely to prove devastatingly destructive for the human race with nuclear arsenals released on both sides.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
wallen, I feel we are talking past each other. No one has ever questioned that in terms of absolute numbers the 20th century has probably been the bloodiest in history; that's a natural result of scaling the population up.

The entire point of this talk, is that the *relative* level of violence has decreased, ie. the violence per capita. To throw out numbers, where perhaps >30% of people in tribal societies died at the hands of another human, only 4.5% died in such a fashion in the 20th century.

The absolute and relative numbers are two very different quantitative measures, and while the the former is ideally the number we'd like to reduce to zero, the latter is an indicator that progress is being made. So I strongly disagree with your assertion that it's not of gripping importance, as everyone's quality of life has improved as a result of that very real progress.

Also, these type of facts are important to combat the environment of fear and suspicion that governments seek to engender in their populations in order to justify their power grabs, an end I would think you would support. Only by spreading these facts can we hope to counter the rhetoric of fear.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 17 2007
As the world population has almost quadrupled in the last 100 years, I would imagine that murders and civil violence are at an all time high too. Really, for me, whether I am more or less likely to be killed at the hands of another male in this century, is not of gripping importance. Humans have always been capable of killing each other and still are. At a conservative estimate at least 150 million people have died in wars in the 20th century--and I repeat that is far, far more than in any other century in human history. Moreover, it has been nasty mechanized war. Therefore, I repeat that one could also make a model where the 20th century is viewed as the most violent in human history. Pinker interprets the figures in the way he wishes too--and others will do the same.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
wallen, your analytical approach suffers from selection bias: warfare is not the only cause of death, nor may it even be a predominant source of human-caused death. As such, it would not be a reliable measure of our likelihood of dying at the hands of another human. What about muggings? First, second and third degree murders?

The state of warfare today is clearly more dangerous than it has been in the past, and yet we can argue that there are fewer wars, and they are resolved more quickly and decisively. Where is the modern equivalent of the Hundred Year war? Where are the Crusades, or the invading armies of Genghis Khan, Alexander or Rome? Humans often suffer from selection bias, particularly in our memories, and as such, we can forget how blood thirsty our history has really been.

However, you may be right that more died in warfare than in the past. That's irrelevant though, as that is only part of the statistical probability that factors into my likelihood of death by another human. But if you truly believe the raw data supports your view, then perhaps you can point me to this data that I may inspect it myself. A quick search turned up this:

Which supports Pinker's assertion that the likelihood of me dying at the hand of another human this century is very low (4.5%); further, I find it very hard to believe that I have a smaller chance of dying at the hands of a human on the streets of 18th century London.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 17 2007
Sandro, personally I see someone interpreting statistics in a way that is suitable to him and then saying it's scientific. I can reasonably claim the exact opposite of Pinker on the basis of the raw data. I can set up a model that totals up the number of people killed in warfare throughout the centuries and say that as the 20th century saw far more people killed in warfare than any previous century, that century is, in fact, the most violent century of all. As for Foucault having his critics--don't we all? Even Pinker no doubt! All thinkers have their critics and it's easy to find pages and pages of criticism of just about everybody on the web. This is no doubt just ,as all thinkers make lots of errors. In fact, such close attention from those who disagree is usually a sign of relative success rather than failure!

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 17 2007
john wallen, indeed the statistics are not the same, as Pinker and others have already pointed out. But you are convinced of the contrary, so no need to dwell on this.

I will instead agree with you that the centralization of power can easily result in the abuse of power; this very lesson can be seen in communist states without "benevolent dictators", and even in the U.S. where the Constitution is being subverted as we speak. However, it does not follow that concentration of power is necessary and sufficient for its abuse. Systems of governance which appropriately distribute powers with checks and balances can eventually address any injustices, and the benefits of such governance on the whole outweigh the injustices. Capitalism is a good start in this regard, as it distributes control into many hands, rather than concentrating it in a few; it's only a partial solution however.

As for Foucault, many of his arguments are widely discredited elsewhere [1], though he was likely right about some things. Also, I do not believe that I proposed any interpretation of the data beyond what Pinker himself stated.

I don't understand your question regarding the economic base, but I will interpret it as a question about the economic differences between capitalist and tribal societies: econonmics is the study of resources. We now place far more strain on resources than we ever have in the past, and despite this additional resource contention, we have lower rates of violence per capita, when one would expect the contrary all else being equal. Thus, all else is not equal, and Pinker outlines 4 reasons he has heard for this trend. Neither he nor I can say whether any of those reasons are correct, but the facts stand regardless: people now experience greater stability and safety than they have in the past [2]. If you mean something else, please clarify.

Finally, science subsumes philosophy, and we should all endeavour to support our beliefs with facts, and abandon them should they fail the appropriate tests, despite how cherished they may be; progress is made only by scientific discovery, not by rhetoric.

[2] on average of course, which is the realm of statistical reasoning; specific locales and times will affect the likelihood of experiencing violence.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 16 2007
Sandro I tend to accept Foucault's ideas on violence. Of course this is to sound a rather unusual note in this mostly self congratulatory forum for evolutionary psychology. Foucault believed that with the development of the modern state, people with power had greater possibilities than ever before to inflict violence on their own people (I wonder if Pinker included Stalin's estimated murder of 20 million of his own people in his figures?). Foucault particularly referred to the power of the "bio-state" that controls its citizens from the cradle to the grave (and kills them if necessary). Anyone interested can read his conclusions. I don't see why I should explain them to a clearly unsympathetic audience. Furthermore, I have a life to lead and have no time for posts of enormous length such as Sandro's admirable effort. In the end those who are already convinced will support Pinker. I will just say that Sandro's explanation/interpretation of the statistical data is really quite absurd. What about the economic base? Statistics for a hunter gatherer society are hardly likely to be the same as for a highly developed capitalist society.

Flag this comment Sandro Magi – December 16 2007
craig plescia, you'd be hard-pressed to argue that indirect violence is more prevalent nowadays, not just because of a lack of reliable data, but because such violence was very prevalent in the past as well. Re: apathy, as Pinker's presentation demonstrates, apathy over a stranger's suffering is at an all-time LOW in the history of humanity. Where 100 years ago people would think 'better him than me', people now actually openly protest against such acts.

Fred Feuerstein, conflict over resources are probably the oldest wars known to humanity. The increased use of open trade means we are more likely to resolve any shortage of resources peacefully than ever before.

Rashad Samedzade, his point is that fewer people have been dying in conflicts since the 50s, and he outlined the reasons shortly after. For instance, consider how peaceful history would seem if no one actually reported the wars. Increased news coverage does not imply an increase in news; if anything, increased coverage of conflicts elsewhere is just a sign that there is no local news; no news is good news!

A good point was raised though: what if the reduction in violent death is due to improved medicine and technology. To that I say: we're still better off! Pinker also noted many instances of documented societal norms which demonstrate a marked decrease in our acceptance of cruelty, such as burning a cat alive for entertainment; those are very hard to dispel so easily.

Gregory Scott, I found his treatment of human naivete and "selective memory" to be appropriately light. I think he was making the point that we all fall prey to Bacon's "Idol of the Den" where we romanticize certain notions despite all evidence to the contrary.

Audrey Manning, Pinker never said that people have changed or have become less violent, one of his points was that we have changed the circumstances such that we are better able to minimize violence (centralizing authority to commit violence). In the constant nature/nurture debate, there is considerable room for changing attitudes towards appropriate conflict resolution, despite an inherent survival instinct. Nowadays people rarely resort to sword duels or knife fights for an insult.

George Alexander, the fact that such biblical acts are no longer WIDESPREAD is the convincing part of Pinker's argument. That they're still practiced "somewhere" is irrelevant.

Klavs Sedlenieks, the fact pre-horticultural "tribes" didn't have a village to invade because they weren't in the same location for very long contributed to the decreased incidence of violence. Also, the rise of horticulture increased the population and subsequently the pressure on scarce resources, so of course increased violence results. The only way to decrease pressure on resources is remove consumers or increase production. Both have happened frequently in our history.

Maxx Toler, absolute numbers are irrelevant when dispelling fears based on probability; do you care that hundreds of thousands die in car accidents when you get in your car? Probably not, as the likelihood of you dying in a crash are small. You are correct that circumstances matter though, and while we perhaps are not less violent biologically speaking, we have established ways to curb that violence.

Larry Ray, you have raised an excellent point. The increased centralization of power in authorities has resulted in increased dangers to the public as a whole.

maniza naqvi, the widespread viewing of such violent materials may in fact curb violent tendencies. If you need any further convincing that we live in a less violent time, then take a look at your average life expectancy. If you're older than 30 and you lived even a few hundred years ago, you would likely be dead right now.

Adam Hicks, the false reality addressed in this talk is the nostalgic view that the past was a relative utopia, and that society is falling into the crapper. In reality, the past is riddled with murder, maiming, cruelty, and domestic abuse, and these were ACCEPTED practices. Despite the fact these sometimes still occur, the key there is SOMETIMES. The very fact that most people are now actually horrified of these very concepts is proof of the thesis. Your comments on Western society identify you as one of the people Pinker was addressing with this talk: one who criticizes western ideals, while reaping its benefits. Western ideals are the absolute worst, except for all the others.

Stan Barton, I think it's pretty obvious that president's have significant clout on violent issues. If Clinton were still in office, would the U.S. be in Iraq right now? I'd say it's far less likely, as Clinton promoted more peaceful resolutions than Bush. As a Canadian, I'm only indirectly affected by the U.S.'s choice of president, but this point should be loud and clear. I agree with you that the rise of economics has curbed nations' tendencies to wage war. Economics shapes many aspects of our lives, as affluent cultures are less likely to kill each other, reproduce, and so on. Perhaps the bureaucracy of economics will one day stop all wars? "I'm sorry Mr. President, all our money is tied up in trade investments at the moment. Perhaps you'd like to file a protest and increase tariffs instead?"

Stewart Mayart, the very fact that we have fewer violent deaths per capita DESPITE our increased pressure on resources is the salient point to take from this talk.

Zac Albrecht-Heiks, one cannot morally judge a species or a race or a people, one can only judge individuals. Thus, if there is less violence, then fewer of us are violent, and more of us are good. I would certainly praise my son for going for choosing the non-lethal resolution if there was a choice.

Pradeep KallurViswanathaRao, that they are different is entirely the point. Our norms are less violent.

Darrell Kern, I fail to see what GG&S contributes to this. Every person here, including yourself, who has judged Pinker for his presentation, as nervous, shifty, or outright evil as you have, is guilty of the very attitudes that result in violence: demonizing. Pinker himself covered this in his talk, where people "looked after their own", and the rest were demonized as subhuman to justify their cruel treatment. Your false dichotomy of "us vs. them" serves only to increase tensions and demonize "the enemy" as justification for pending cruelty. Your use of the very tactics which you criticize Pinker marks your entire comment as the epitome of ironic hypocrisy.

James Mikkelsen, when dealing with probabilities, absolute numbers are meaningless. If the birth rate sky rocketed, the death rate should similarly sky rocket all else being equal. The fact that it didn't is evidence that all else is not equal, and what changed to produce this reduction in violence is the very subject of the talk.

Benjamin Funar and Darrell Plank, I whole-heartedly agree. Idolizing the past is a sure sign of our biases and selective memory.

john wallen, as I stated earlier, population growth has nothing to do with statistics (except when performing the initial analysis of course); the trends that hold for 1,000 people hold for 1,000,000,000 people, all else being equal; if 50% died violently in the past, then 50% should be dying violently now. That they aren't is the historical improvement of which Pinker speaks. Further, your implication that coercion and threat are somehow "new" to this century is completely ludicrous; most mammals use the threat of violence to maintain their alpha status in the pack. Institutionalizing force is nothing new either; go talk to the Catholic Church and their Inquisitors in particular, as they have almost 2,000 years of history to teach you. If you meant something else, please clarify.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 16 2007
I don't believe the relevant question is the one you pose at all. Perhaps this is the relevant question for you: it certainly isn't for me. For me, the relevant question is: have we evolved to a point where violence or the threat of violence is less important than it was in the past?-and the answer, quite obviously, is "no". If all Pinker wants to say is that because the population keeps increasing, then as a percentage of the population less men will die in wars, then that is rather a non-point! No doubt if this process continues, we will suffer the violence of civil strife as people battle for scarce resources. At heart, Pinker is a Utopian who believes that everything is always getting better.

Flag this comment Chris Anderson – December 16 2007
John, it makes no sense to focus on gross numbers. The 20th century may have seen a lot of people die in war, but it also saw vastly more people live long, happy lives than ever before.... both factors driven by the explosion in population. The relevant question is what are the chances that any ONE human life will be cut short by violence. And you get to that answer by looking at PERCENTAGE of a given population killed by wars or violence. So Pinker is correct to focus on that measure, and the fact that it has plummeted over the past few thousand years is indeed counter-intuitive. That is what makes this talk important.

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
Jose, it's clear that man is not becoming less violent. The 20th Century has been the most violent in history. This is not merely a scientific question, but a social question too. Pinker says: "Our ancestors were far more violent than we are". I totally reject this and deny that there is anything scientific about such a statement. Pinker uses warped statistics (as pointed out in the blog you mention). Population has quadrupled in the 20th century, so his statistics are way out of kilter. If he'd made a graph of the NUMBERS of people killed in warfare throughout history then the 20th century would easily have come out on top with over 100 million deaths. Furthermore, Pinker totally ignores work by thinkers such as Foucault in this area, which has demonstrated that in modern societies violence has become institutionalized with the THREAT of violence often becoming more important than violence itself. Pinker wants to imply that evolution (of man and society) is making man less violent: a conclusion that is qualitatively and quantitatively untrue. Only the methods of coercion change.

Flag this comment José Tavares – December 15 2007

Here's an excerpt of the blog you've linked:

"(...) Now, Steven Pinker was not happy with such vagueness and developed the idea that children's innate grasp of grammar is a product of natural selection rather than mind per se. Natural selection developed the neural networks conducive to language acquisition when it became necessary for people to speak. On the basis of this flimsy distinction, Pinker came up with the idea that language is an "instinct"."

That's not a scientific blog nor does it contain any scientific references.

While I do agree that 'violence' is not decreasing on a per-individual basis, that's precisely because, just like 'the mind' & the 'language ability', it's a product of evolution.
Probably, Pinker wants to stress that, still in accordance with evolution, the interplay between our modern cortexes & the 'reptilian complex' allows us to have more control on our instincts/emotions/feelings, as 'aggressiveness' is somewhat less necessary to survival. Actually, it hasn't been proven that our 'r-complex' has receded or in any other way been modified but through this interplay with the upper cortexes. This can lead to a less determinat role of 'aggressiveness'.

Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, much on the same trend as Daniel Denett.
Behavioural neurobiologists (like Damasio & others), have a different perspective on what concerns the mechanisms which drive the evolutionary brain and its emergent manifestations.

I can only state that, if the harwired potential for language is based on the brainstem, like any instincts, language itself must have come from the interplay of this primitive brain with the more recent 'brain', the Lymbic System and the Neo-Cortex. And, this interplay would become hardwired, as well.


Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
For more information on why Pinker is so wrong, see:

Edit | Delete john wallen – December 15 2007
Those "inconvenient facts" are fairly meaningless. For example, they clearly don't take into consideration huge population growth in the last hundred years. Furthermore, Pinker's "subliminal" message is that we are improving and becoming less violent. This is clearly untrue; we have merely made violence more subtle: coercion or the threat of coercion still underpins everything we do. It's a bit like the MAD period between the U.S. and the Soviet Union: actual violence might not take place, but that is only because the THREAT of destruction hangs over us all.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Calypso of the Appenine Way

Chapter One of my new novel continued......

Via Garibaldi was filled with shadows and half light as we made our way along the great central artery of Parma that connected the outside suburbs with the very centre of the city itself. Along this thoroughfare there were shops and commercial dealers of every description: jewellery shops, ice cream shops, tobacco shops, small restaurants and big restaurants. Most of all, however, there were the boutiques and clothes shops run by independent artisans. To my jaundiced north European eye, they appeared to be all grossly over priced. Nevertheless, even to a sceptic like myself, most of the materials looked handsome and well made. Horses for courses, I thought. Parma was one of the richest provincial cities of northern Italy and most of the locals were more than well enough heeled to delight in over-spending for their necessary trifles in life. Eva pretended to take the same attitude as myself to the over-priced luxury of Parma; yet as with most women, one felt that it wouldn’t take much to make a rebel of her and send her screaming and possessed into a melee of berserk shoppers waving her hard earned lire over her head like some half demented lunatic.

As we passed the gelateria at which we’d stopped earlier that night, Mario seemed to perk up and he looked long and hard through the glass front of the shop hoping to catch the eye of the dark haired girl within. However, I could make out that she was surrounded by five or six customers and mostly obscured from our sight.

“I think Mario is in love”, I confided to Eva still clinging next to me and warm at my side.

“Really?” she replied questioningly. “With Ilaria, you mean?”

I took a quick look at Mario who was now walking alongside us--and seeing that his face never changed its expression I decided that it would be OK to rib him a little.

“Oh yes, always with Ilaria”, I replied. However, one such as Mario is unable to keep all his loving for only a single woman. On our way to ‘La Bussola’ this evening, we took a gelato in this place--and it seemed to me that the poor girl who served us, was infatuated with our brave Rudolf Valentino here.”

Eva laughed while Mario responded by giving me a dirty look and saying nothing.

“What on earth will Ilaria say if she finds out that you have roving eyes Signor’ Mario?” asked Eva bending over and across me in order to look in Mario’s face and see what emotion it might be registering: I thought surliness was the predominant feature.

“Don’t listen to John, Eva. He is only joking. Yes, of course; Eva is my woman and I love her very much. Nevertheless, seeing how changeable women can be, it is never a bad idea to keep another in reserve--just in case anything should go wrong.”

“And what might go wrong?” enquired Eva, a little nettled by Mario’s words in spite of herself.

Mario shrugged. “Who can say? It is clear though that a little fame or flashiness can often turn their hearts away from one who loves them deeply. If this were to happen, a man would look foolish indeed if he had not provided another beauty for himself; in reserve, so to speak.”

Eva laughed; but I could see that Mario’s words had irritated her. “And why might a woman leave a partner except for the common enough occurrence of a man cheating on her, or not treating her with the respect and dignity she craves and deserves?”

Mario shrugged again. “I wouldn’t know Eva. However, I am convinced that it is best for both men and women to prepare for all possibilities in their relations with each other.”

Eva gave a strained laugh. “I see you have been spending too much time with John, Mario. These are his ideas I’m sure.”

This time Mario shook his head lugubriously. “No Eva. These are my own ideas--though I respect John’s viewpoints very much. It is my own experience with women that has led me to these--admittedly somewhat sour--conclusions.”

I knew that Eva was thinking of Sharokh. Clearly, he loved her dearly and would do absolutely anything for her. Yet here she was with me, a well known double-dealer. Looked at dispassionately (if that was possible), Eva’s actions seemed to support the truth of Mario’s words--and she didn’t like it.

By now we had reached the end of Via Garibaldi and the mounted statue of the great man himself came into view on our right. We took a turn into Via Mazzini and once again passed all the bars in Piazza Garibaldi, before taking refuge from the still falling snow flakes under the porticoes that led back to Eleonora’s house and office. Everything was darker than before and few people seemed to be any longer abroad in the swirling, snow infested night. When we were about half way down the porticoed arcade of Via Mazzini, it was time to cross the wide, undefended road and take the small side street down to the birreria, ‘Oktoberfest’. As we crossed the street, three abreast, the snow, which over the last half hour had been coming down ever stronger, whirled around our forms and covered everything with a fine sliver of white. In particular, our overcoats and scarves picked up the snowflakes in abundance so that to anyone we came upon unexpectedly, we would give the impression of being three shapes freshly returned from Hades’s underworld--possibly on some hopeless mission sanctioned by the goddess Persephone herself.

The street lights burnt strangely dim as we entered into the small side street that led down to the birreria and passed the little cinema on our right which this week was showing a new biopic of the sixties group, “The Doors”. I knew that Mario was a great fan of the group and also that he’d been along to see the movie with Ilaria a couple of evenings before. So far, I’d forgotten to ask him of his impressions of the film, so now, as we approached the yellow light of the silent birreria, I decided to ask him about the movie.

“So how was this movie, Mario? Worth the entrance fee?” Mario seemed to consider deeply for a few moments before replying.

“Certainly worth the entrance fee, though far from being wholly satisfactory.”

Oh?” I responded. “What was wrong with it then.”

“Nothing in particular”, replied Mario. “The only real problem was that it was made as a biopic and so the director felt the need to cover everything. The story was too long and wide ranging to be adequately treated of in just a couple of hours. This was the main difficulty. However, there were other smaller ones too. Certain parts of the real story were romanticised while others were glossed over entirely.”

I nodded my head in an understanding fashion. “Plenty of good music anyhow?” Mario’s face creased up into a smile of sheer pleasure confirming what I already knew: that he loved Jim Morrison and the music of ‘The Doors’.

“Oh yes”, he confirmed redundantly. “The music is always something special.”

We were now outside the birreria and through the glass I could see the Sicilian, Paolo, waiting behind the counter. He was alone, but no doubt his three sons, I thought, were busy serving the student clientele in the basement below. As he saw us, through the glass window, he waved his hand vigorously in the air and shouted his greetings. I pushed open the door and we entered into his establishment.

Buona sera amici miei. Che piacere di riverdervi su questa notte brutta e tempestosa! There was always a certain level of irony in Paolo’s words--and so it was this evening. Paolo and all his Sicilian family had become good friends during my stay in Parma. He helped in various ways--particularly with information.

Grazie Paolo, I replied. E’ davvero una notte brutta. Siamo qui per incontrarci con Sharokh, l’uomo di Eva.” At these words, Eva gave me a dirty look, while Mario’s face was expressionless and conveyed nothing. Paolo simply shook his head with a non e’ qui.

“It seems he’s not yet arrived”, I said to Eva, a little amused at her obvious irritation.

“Yes, thank you, John. I can speak a little Italian” (her Italian was quite brilliant and far better than mine). “It’s only 10: 40 PM and I imagine he’ll be here in a few moments now.”

The three of us took our places at the single table on the top level, which was right next to Paolo’s counter. I ordered German lager for myself and Mario and Eva ordered spremute, or crushed orange juices. The drinks had just arrived, when Sharokh walked into the birreria and offered us all his greetings. He exchanged a few words with Paolo, whom he knew quite well, before ordering a small beer and sitting down next to Eva. He appeared to be in high good humour, but he often seemed this way and I was doubtful about how much of the true Sharokh I was really seeing on these occasions. Much of his bonhomie was clearly for Eva’s benefit. He wanted it to be clear to her that he harboured no suspicions regarding her behaviour and that myself and Mario were regarded as deep and sincere friends. It was a dangerous game he was playing and it was only because of my own infatuation with Eleonora that the pretense had been allowed to continue for as long as this. I attempted to make some small talk.

“Anything interesting happen in the factory today?”, I enquired. Sharokh shook his head.

“Nothing interesting ever happens in that damn place, except on the last Friday afternoon of every month when we all receive our pay--not that we get much.” I knew that Sharokh picked up about a million and a half lire monthly. As he said, it wasn’t a lot; but it did enable him to keep some dignity and get out of the house instead of always begging for money and being underfoot. Perhaps, it even assuaged his pain somewhat, as he didn’t know what Eva was getting up to while he was slaving away in the motor factory.

Eva looked uncomfortable at Sharokh’s words and she asked him if he’d paid the rent to the landlord before setting out to pick her up that evening. Sharokh confirmed that he had indeed done so. Eva and Sharokh lived some kilometers outside Parma in a little village called “Felino” On arrival from Perugia, they’d had to pay six months rent in advance, a sum that had come directly from Eva’s pocket. Now, the six months had finished and they were back to paying on a more regular monthly basis again.

Derrida's "Of Grammatology"

In chapter two of his famous book "Of Grammatology", Derrida challenges the Saussaurean idea that the signifier is arbitrary and that speech has primacy over writing. I would actually agree with him on both issues, though Derrida himself seems to find the proof of his belief in elliptical statements of an ever more bewildering nature:

"Now we must think that writing is at the same time more exterior to speech, not being its “image” or its “symbol,” and more interior to speech, which is already in itself a writing. Even before it is linked to incision, engraving, drawing, or the letter, to a signifier referring in general to a signifier signified by it, the concept of the graphic [unit of a possible graphic system] implies the framework of the instituted trace, as the possibility common to all systems of signification. My efforts will now be directed toward slowly detaching these two concepts from the classical discourse from which I necessarily borrow them. The effort will be laborious and we know a priori that its effectiveness will never be pure and absolute."

Derrida seems to say that writing is not a mere "sign of a sign", but in some sense has primacy over speech. It (language) "implies the framework of the instituted trace": that is to say that all other forms of discourse are implied within it. Speech has already been "written" and has no primacy over writing, while the latter contains the necessary elements of all other discourse within its more finished structure.

Chomsky wasn't too taken with Derrida's ideas, regarding them as meaningless obscurantism.

"Noam Chomsky has expressed the view that Derrida uses "pretentious rhetoric" to obscure the simplicity of his ideas. He groups Derrida within a broader category of the Parisian intellectual community which he has criticized for, on his view, acting as an elite power structure for the well educated through "difficult writing" and obscurantism. Chomsky has indicated that he may simply be incapable of understanding Derrida, but he is suspicious of this possibility." (WIKIPEDIA on Derrida)

My own belief, is that when Saussure allowed that the signifier applied not to reality but to a concept in the mind, he was opening the door to a theory that could give primacy to writing. If speech is only expressing a concept in the mind, then that concept is surely best expressed when all the resources of language have been brought to bear on it! In other words, the initial interpretation (in speech) is simple and probably inadequate to express all the richness and ambiguity of the mind's concept. It is only after words have been honed, in writing, that language is able to best express the complexity of the mind's concept.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Calypso of the Appenine Way

Continuing with chapter one of my novel:

Eva smiled pleasantly at Sacchetti and extended her hand. “A pleasure to meet you Signore.”

“ me Lorenzo”, tut-tutted the infatuated one. “Up close I see that you are even more beautiful than I had previously thought.”

I could not disagree with Sacchetti. Eva was a beauty--even if an understated one (unlike the majority of Italian girls). Tonight she was wearing a heavy red overcoat against the inclement weather but her petite beauty shone clearly through. Eva had the prettiest face imaginable with a lovely mouth and rose bud lips. Her skin was clear of any blemish and fair like alabaster. She liked to keep her brown hair short, but the style suited her very much. In addition to her beauty, Eva was also one of the most intelligent women I’d ever met, a polyglot who spoke nearly all the major European languages. She had helped me a lot with my Italian even though I was not a particularly quick student (being by no means a natural linguist like her).

Eva took her place at the table and ordered a pizza and a glass of red house wine. Lorenzo’s eyes hardly left her face as she stared down at the menu and spoke with the waitress. I had invited the man over as a joke, but now his puppy dog dedication was beginning to try my patience. Or was it a most unreasonable jealousy that I was beginning to feel?

“Tell us a little about yourself, Lorenzo”, I suddenly began. “Are you from Parma? What is your job?”
As the bald Italian began to speak, I noticed that his ingratiating smile remained fully directed at Eva. “Yes, I am from Parma. Last year I finished my engineering course at the university and now I am working for my father’s engineering company here. It is only my first year so I am mostly still learning the ropes.”

“And do you have some sweetheart?” I enquired of him mischievously. “No doubt a man like yourself, educated, refined, fortunate, will have committed himself to some beloved fidanzata many moons ago.”
I observed Eva almost choke herself on her wine as she listened to my words. Mario, on the other hand, appeared distant: almost as if he wasn’t listening to our conversation. Perhaps he was still struggling with the problematic situation to be faced with Ilaria.

Lorenzo shook his head. “No I am not currently fidanzato. While at university I had a close relationship with a fellow student called Alicia. However, after graduation we drifted apart. Her home is in Padova where she has now returned to live with her parents. Furthermore, I recently heard that she will soon marry the son of a close friend of her father’s. I wish her all happiness for the future. Our relationship had gone as far as it could have and both of us realised that we were not suited to a lifetime together.”

“What sort of woman do you think would be suitable for a man of your position, Signor’ Sacchetti?” I realised that Eva had asked the question in ironic jest, but nevertheless, I could not prevent a sudden jealousy freezing up my good humour.

Sachetti gave a big sigh. “Ah, what a question to ask! In my job, I need someone who could be trusted to always be dignified in my meetings with potential clients. Beauty and brains should go together. On the other hand, in our private moments, the woman I choose should be funny and playful: not afraid of initiating funny little games that would bring us closer together.”

“I’m sure you will have no difficulty in finding such a woman Signor’ Sacchetti.” Eva’s voice sounded a little cold and I knew that she had already tired of the game with Sacchetti. In spite of her unfailing good humour, Eva had no wish to be the prize wife of a rich and influential man. If such had been her ambition she would never have had anything to do with Sharokh or myself. She was the daughter of a Dusseldorf cobbler and she happily embraced her working class roots. More than anything else she sought stability with a man she loved, though that man was always most likely to be a vice addicted adventurer of a dubious type. Previously there had been Sharokh, now there

Sacchetti was shaking his head in response to Eva’s earlier remark. “You are wrong my dear very wrong! To find the right woman is the most difficult thing in the world. My eventual wife must combine the roles of ambassador, lover, playmate, friend, mother and confidant. Do you think it is so very easy to find a person like that?”

The cold boredom persisted in Eva’s voice as she answered the newly qualified engineer. “I think your world and the world of your parents, your family, must be filled with such admirable women Signor’ Sacchetti. No doubt they are raised to always put the needs of decorum before their own most intimate desires. I am sure you will find such a woman without difficulty.”

Sacchetti shook his head and looked confused. It was clear that he had perceived Eva’s cold indifference to him and his family’s fortune; and also that he was not used to being dismissed so easily as a potential suitor. I was sure he would make a direct attempt to arrange a date with little Eva and his next words confirmed my belief.

“Eva, you are a most beautiful and intelligent woman. It would give me great pleasure if you were to allow me to take you out for dinner at “Il Piccolo Diavolo” one night this week. “Il Piccolo Diavolo” was probably the best and most expensive restaurant in Parma: exclusive too, with tables always at a premium. Obviously Sacchetti was able to exert a little family pressure there. In spite of the bald one’s confidence as he spoke, I felt sure that Eva would disappoint him. Her next words confirmed this.

“Signor’ Sacchetti, you are really too kind. However, this is proving to be a busy time of year for me and I really don’t think I will be able to find the time. Furthermore, I doubt if my live in boyfriend, Sharokh, will be at all pleased if I leave him in order to take an expensive meal with a stranger.”

Damn her! Now she’d made me angry and jealous too! Sacchetti for his part looked like he’d been struck in the face and his words were cold and hard as he commenced to speak. “My dear Eva, please forgive me for my forwardness. I had no idea that you were already as good as married. Of course, I extend to you all my best wishes for a happy future with this man....?”

“Sharokh”, prompted Eva. “His name is Sharokh and he is a factory worker.”

This information was intended as an insult to the rich and well-connected Sacchetti and he took it as such. “Very good. Accept my best wishes once again for your future happiness.” Sacchetti looked at his expensive rolex watch and declared himself to be late for an important appointment. He rose to his feet and gave a little formal bow to us all.

“Good night my friends. I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening together.” Having bowed and said these words, the disconsolate and angry engineer left our table and manoeuvered his way through the crowded room to the distant exit without taking a single look back.

Eva flashed me an ironic look. “Do you think I’ve disappointed him? I feel that I stopped being a goddess somewhere among the mouthfuls of pizza.”

Somehow my mood had changed too and I was no longer amused by Lorenzo’s infatuation for Eva. “He is a stupid, pompous fool. Only an untutored ego would take its own worth for granted in such a way. You are worth ten thousand Lorenzos.”

I noticed that Eva’s brows puckered together at these words. She didn’t need me to tell her that she was superior to the likes of Lorenzo, but my heavy disapproval took the fun out of her ironic dismissal. For some moments, there was what is usually called a “pregnant” silence and then Mario asked Eva a question.
“How is Sharokh, Eva? Still working in that car factory?” Mario had always liked Sharokh, probably because his own problems were dwarfed by the Iranians’. Mario had failed his exams and gone to work in a factory. Now his father had given him a way out and within a short time he should be free to go to university or search for better work. In contrast, in spite of his wealthy beginnings, Sharokh seemed doomed to a hopeless life as a factory worker. In spite of this, he always remained positive and upbeat.

“Sharokh is fine, Mario. He is meeting me in the ‘Oktoberfest’ at a quarter to ten. I hope you will both accompany me there later and we can have a drink together.” Mario looked at his watch and seemed to make some calculations. At length he nodded his head.

“Yes, that is fine for me. I need to be up very early tomorrow morning in order to catch the train to Modena, but it’s really OK as long as I get home before midnight.” Eva gave me an inquisitive look.

“And you John? You don’t have any pressing engagement.” I smiled and shook my head with assurance.

“What possible engagement could I have? I suggest we stay here for another half hour or so before strolling slowly to the ‘Oktoberfest’ for 9:45.”

Conversation continued between the three of us in fits and starts, becoming ever more desultory, before Eva recognised an American guy she had worked with in the room. He was sitting with friends, so Eva merely waved over at him. However, he immediately left his friends and came over to say hello. I had met him once or twice and didn’t like him.

“Eva, so nice to see you here”, he gushed in his put on Italian style. “I know I’ve been trying to get you to come here for some weeks, but I’d just about given up on ever really seeing you sat here enjoying yourself with friends.” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. I thought it was fairly clear that we weren’t enjoying ourselves and that we must have appeared morose to any outsider who had been observing us.

“Eva nodded and smiled. “Yes, well I finished a little late today and John and Mario kindly consented to meet me here. We will be leaving in a few moments as we have an appointment at the ‘Oktoberfest’.” Di Matteo (for such was his name), shot me a quick and inquisitive glance before continuing.>/p>

“That is a pity. I had hoped to introduce you to a few people over at my table.”

“Another time, Di Matteo”, I rudely butted in. We are just picking up the check before leaving. Don’t worry, we are well aware that you are mostly to be found hanging around inside ‘La Bussola’. We will find you another time.” The American gave me a nasty look before making a little formal bow, wishing us a good evening and withdrawing to his own table. As I paid the bill (which also included the cost of Zachetti’s beer), I spoke to Eva with some asperity.

“I really don’t understand what you see in that American idiot. You know that he is of the type who thinks a smooth word can get him whatever he wishes. By talking to him on occasions such as these, you are merely encouraging him to believe that he has a chance of going to bed with you.”

Eva’s eyes flashed her rage. “Sometimes you can be very crude, John. He is an acquaintance, a work colleague: nothing more. Let’s go.”

We stood up and retraced the earlier steps of Lorenzo through the crowded space. As we left, it was clear that the restaurant was far fuller now than it had been on our arrival, about an hour earlier. Outside, the January wind caught us in an unexpected gust that quite took our breath away after the cozy warmth of “La Bussola’s” interior. I suddenly realised that I’d left my umbrella inside the restaurant but felt insufficient concern at the cold and snow to go back and retrieve it. Eva was also without an umbrella.

Silently, each person preoccupied with his or her own thoughts, we walked back in the direction of the town and the birreria: the very same direction that Mario and myself had come from an hour earlier. It was snowing lightly and Eva and I snuggled closely together as we walked along in order to generate some body heat. Mario walked alone, a little distance in front of us. The streets seemed absolutely deserted at that hour and no doubt the worsening weather conditions had kept many would-be revellers indoors this night. Eva, Mario and myself were made of sterner stuff and a little bad weather was hardly likely to make us alter our plans even in the smallest degree. Both Eva and myself were hard bitten north Europeans who knew the very worst conditions that the continent could impose on weary travellers. And Mario? For the time being, Mario was an honorary north European!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Steven Pinker and Violence

As most people interested in the fields of psychology and linguistics will know, Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist best known for his tweaking of Chomsky's idea that children possess a generative or universal grammar. For Chomsky, this meant that all languages conformed to the rules of a kind of "proto" grammar that children possessed instinctively and could apply on the basis of just a few examples. Chomsky, however, didn't spend a lot of time describing where this ability came from: it was "innate" and all children possessed it. In some sense, it could be described as a by-product of mind. Now, Steven Pinker was not happy with such vagueness and developed the idea that children's innate grasp of grammar is a product of natural selection rather than mind per se. Natural selection developed the neural networks conducive to language acquisition when it became necessary for people to speak. On the basis of this flimsy distinction, Pinker came up with the idea that language is an "instinct". In essence, Pinker has been parasitic of Chomsky's ideas, but gives them a smart new twist which has succeeded in putting his name on the academic map. Pinker, in addition to his more serious work has written a lot of science for dummies type stuff. Now, he has a new book ready, entitled: "A History of Violence" and earlier this year he gave a taster of its theme at the TED conference in Monterey, California.

In this short talk, Pinker states his belief that violence has been on the decline for centuries and that today we live in the most non violent period in history. In order to back this up, he inundates his listeners with warped statistics. Apparently male Indians in America had a far higher risk of dying at the hands of another male than we have today. Who would ever have guessed such a thing? Of course, he doesn't take into account that all males in agricultural or hunter gatherer societies were liable to be called upon to defend the tribe. Furthermore, he ignores the way modern society divides human labour: there are particular groups concerned with enforcing law and fighting foreign armies. The deaths may be innumerable, but clearly in a world that has nearly quadrupled its population in the last hundred years, most males are not going to be killed. Pinker, of course, sets up his statistics in a particular and biased way. What would his graph have looked like if he'd counted up the dead killed in wars during the last millennium? Very different in fact! Lowest estimates conclude that more than 100 million people have died in twentieth century warfare. That's far more than in any other century of human history!

In his egotism, Pinker doesn't even bother to look at what past thinkers on the subject of human violence have had to say. In particular, he ignores Michel Foucauld's series of lectures given at the College de France in 1976 under the title, "Society Must be Defended". If he had studied Foucauld, he would have understood that in the modern age, violence has become institutionalized and often operates more on the level of threat: think of America and the Soviet Union during the cold war and the concept of MAD. A war never occurred because the consequences of what would have happened had both nuclear arsenals been released, were too awful to contemplate. In other words the THREAT of annihilation kept war at bay for 45 years! In today's world of modern technological societies, the ever present threat of violence to bodies is successful in preventing most people from breaking the rules

Pinker's analysis is superficial and wrong. Time magazine included this man in its list of the world's 100 most influential people. If that is true, then God help us all!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Calypso of the Appenine Way

This extract continues the first chapter of my novel, "Calypso of the Appenine Way". I'm not sure whether I'll post anymore after concluding the first chapter. Perhaps it's best to keep people guessing!

“What time is the appointment with Eva?” enquired Mario.

“At 8:30 in ‘La Bussola’” I replied. ‘La Bussola’ was one of our favourite pizzerias, quiet and hidden in a dark back street near Piazza Garibaldi.

“Good”, nodded Mario. “I have had nothing to eat since this morning and I am famished.”
We had instinctively begun to move in the direction of ‘La Bussola’, but Mario stopped outside an ice cream parlour. “I think that I will eat an ice cream before the pizza” he declared solemnly. “My stomach is empty and grumbling.”

Mario locked up his motorino outside the shop and we both walked in. The shop was empty except for the salesgirl and ourselves. I noticed that she was a very pretty dark haired girl with sparkling brown eyes. Mario ordered a huge ice cream and flirted with her a little as he debated which flavours to have. I declined to take an ice cream as I’d eaten only several hours before. After a few moments, we found ourselves back outside, Mario unlocking his motorino while I held his ice cream.

“Actually I always stop at this gelateria”, he informed me. “The girl is beautiful and if things continue going as they are between myself and Ilaria, I may need a new woman soon.”

I knew that Mario and Ilaria had been passing through a bad patch, but I was not aware that things had deteriorated so much.

“What’s the main problem?” I enquired. Mario sighed.

“She wants to change me. Her father can get me a job in a bank after I finish the diploma--but it’s not something I desire. As you know, in Italy the herd mentality is very strong and the older people continually try to divert the younger ones along well known paths. Anyway, I will refuse: the boredom would kill me.”

I looked closely at Mario as he slowly pushed along his motorino. His face was dark and troubled. I knew that he loved Ilaria very deeply and would not lightly let her go. Nevertheless, it seemed that a life spent working in a bank under the cold assessing eyes of Ilaria’s relatives represented a step too far for him: a step he was not prepared to take.

“What about Ilaria herself?” I asked. What kind of work does she want to do?” I knew that at present Ilaria was working as a secretary in her uncle’s computer parts factory.

“She is very intelligent”, Mario replied. “She wishes to become a computer systems analyst and is pursuing various courses at night school. I think she will succeed. However, I can see no future for us if she does a job she loves while I am tied into some low level bank job which I hate. Mathematics is my worst subject and the idea of counting all day and every day fills me with a terrible fear and loathing--disgust even. Perhaps I will finish with Ilaria and pursue this beautiful girl in the gelateria.”

I said nothing. I knew that it would take a major disagreement to rupture Mario’s love match with Ilaria. For his sake, I hoped that they could work it out. Ilaria had already shown her faithfulness to Mario by sticking by him after he had botched his first chance at the high school diploma and, as a result, been condemned to working in the factory for a year.

“Well, you should take it easy”, I advised him. “Don’t take precipitous decisions without thinking them through. Sometimes, when you think about an issue carefully a compromise position emerges that enables one to avoid the more extreme outcomes.”

Mario nodded slowly. “You may be right, but Ilaria will have to accept that I could never work in a bank. If she does this, we may be able to work out the rest in one way or another. Really, it is up to her.”

I gave Mario a sidelong glance and almost smiled. He was very testardo and not too good at understanding other people’s motivations. I felt sure that, given time and effort, he could talk Ilaria around. After all, she loved him. I did not believe that he’d be making a determined effort to acquire the dark haired girl’s love at any time soon.

The issue was obviously a disturbing one for him and he decided to change the subject.

“And what is Eleonora up to these days?”

I hardly knew how to reply and shook my head dispiritedly.

“Some things don’t change Mario. She is, as always, a self centred conniving bitch.”

“But you still love her?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Who can tell? I think she is the debt I must pay for too much bad karma. I see through her; I see her shallowness. Yet she still fascinates me.”

Mario nodded his head slowly. “She is a bitch indeed. A two-timing bitch. I would ask you to drop her if I thought you were capable of doing it.”

I smiled at the thought of the twenty one year old Mario giving me advice about love.

“A certain kind of emotional satisfaction is very hard to find”, I answered. “Who knows why we don’t let certain things go? Obviously I feel that I’d be losing too much, too much that was dear to myself, if I allowed her just to drift out of my life.”

“You love her so much then?”

“I think I hate her more than I love her, but sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference between these emotions. I feel that the die has been cast and that the present situation needs to be allowed to play out to its natural close.”

“And what does she say?”

I sneered. “Different things every day. She is inconsistent in everything except her beauty and her cunning.”

“So are you not heading for an unpredictable crash landing?”

“Probably. But as I said earlier, fate insists that we follow certain situations to the very end, fino in fondo.”

“Are you sure it is fate that insists my friend? Could it not just be the siren voice of your own ego?”

I smiled and nodded. “Well, perhaps I am like Ulysses strapped to the mast, listening to the sweet siren melodies. Nevertheless, I must listen to the song and, like Ulysses, make preparations so that it doesn’t destroy me.”

“And if the ropes were to break?”

“Then I would descend to Hades with a stupid smile on my face. Life is uncertain, but in rare situations it’s worth making a stand, come what may.”

Mario was silent, apparently turning over my words in his mind. Finally he spoke.

“Here we are: ‘La Bussola’. It seems deserted around here.”

Mario was right. The road on which ‘La Bussola’ lay seemed quiet as the tomb. I looked at my watch: the time was 8:25. Eva would either be waiting inside or hurrying along some nearby street in order to make the arrival time.

“Let’s go inside”, I suggested and we walked slowly towards the bright entrance, Mario still pushing his recalcitrant motorino. Some short distance from the pizzeria we stopped and Marco locked up his motorino. We could hear sounds of revelry coming from within. ‘La Bussola’, in addition to selling fine pizzas, was a famous expatriate restaurant and, inside, one was likely to meet travellers from all over Europe and even beyond. It was a favourite meeting place for me too and I often arranged to meet my friends here.

Inside, ‘La Bussola’ was built in a rustic style with great timbers supporting the bucolic roof. Tables were arranged casually--and most of them seemed already full. A careful examination of the people present confirmed the fact that Eva had not yet arrived and so we allowed a pretty waitress to lead us into a distant corner where a still unoccupied table awaited us. I took a quick glance at the menu before ordering a pizza margherita and a beer. Marco followed my lead and the waitress left us. I had been watching a small bald man for a while who was eating alone at a table near to our own. His eyes never left my face and he seemed in some way fascinated with me. I had the feeling that I’d seen him before and at length he waved his hand, wiped his face with his napkin and came over to stand next to me.

Buona sera, he commenced formally. Vi ricordate di me, signore?

I could not place my finger on exactly where I’d seen him before and shook my head.

Mi dispiace. So bene che ci siamo incontrati prima, ma non ricordo dove.

The man smiled. E’ stata in mensa. Parlavamo di quella Tedesca, Eva.

Now I remembered the man. He had come over once when I’d been eating in the university cafeteria one afternoon. He’d told me that he’d often seen me with Eva and believed that she was, without doubt, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. I had told the story to Eva herself and she’d blushed for pleasure. Still, I knew that she wouldn’t have any real interest in this rather bloated and bald example of the borghese parmigiano.

Although the man had finished eating and was now clearing his bill with the pretty waitress, I invited him to sit down and wait with Mario and myself for the arrival of la bella Eva. He thanked me profusely and with a deep bow sat down. As the waitress returned with his change, Eva’s bald admirer ordered another beer before turning to us both with a smile.

“So you are meeting Eva here tonight? How exciting to have the opportunity of meeting a goddess.”
I smiled. “Yes, I will even introduce you to her Signore....?”

“Sacchetti. Lorenzo Sachetti.”

At that very moment, I picked out the petite figure of Eva making her way towards us in the crowded room. I waved my arm in welcome and turned to the bald Italian.

“My dear Signor' Sacchetti, it seems that your moment has arrived. Here is the beautiful Tedesca on her way to join us now!” Sachetti fixed his eyes on the diminutive form of Eva and seemed to sigh deeply. Within a moment, the smiling figure of Eva was with us and I was introducing her to Sacchetti. “Eva, this gentleman is Lorenzo Sacchetti and he has been admiring your beauty from afar for some months now. In fact ever since he spied us together eating lunch in the Mensa.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A History of Violence

In a series of lectures at the College de France in the 1970s, Foucault put forward the interesting hypothesis that history is actually the history of violence. According to Foucault, the history of every constitution retains evidence of every civil upheaval and war that has affected the state in question. Foucault was particularly making a point about the French constitution including, of course, the fundamental changes brought in by the revolution of 1789. However, most influence was always felt from the LAST war or civil upheaval.

This is a thought-provoking hypothesis. It can certainly be applied to European power relationships after the Second World War, with the division of Europe into two hostile camps reflecting the reality of a world controlled by the two new superpowers, America and the USSR. The constitutions of the Eastern Bloc countries, for example, clearly reflected the reality of the USSR's victory over fascist Germany, while the democracies that won the war were free to shape or develop their constitutions as they liked. The instance of Japan is instructive: after losing the war and suffering the devastation caused by the dropping of two atomic bombs, the Japanese gave up on their own world view completely and committed themselves to imitating the American model: even to the point where in many areas they surpassed the original.

Foucault's ideas on history and violence are as relevant today as ever. It is interesting to note that we do not enjoy democratic privileges due to some divine decree: rather, they are the product of successful wars and civil struggles. On the other hand, it can also be said that these same privileges have come about, to a large extent, as the result of successful violence.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Here's the second extract from my novel. In the Mss. the Italian speech is in italics rather than quotation marks--so that explains the absence of inverted commas for direct speech when Italian is being used.

Calypso of the Appenine Way


1. The Assignation

I came out of the apartment on Via Tiziano, closed the blue door and locked it behind me. From the next apartment I heard the usual sounds of dissention: the old man arguing with his son about a girlfriend perceived to be too common for him.

“Understand Pietro, I know how it feels to be nineteen years old. However, it is foolish to trap yourself in a marriage with that tart merely because she is pregnant. It is all a trick. She knows that you are studying engineering at the university and will make a good catch. Do you really believe that she will be faithful to you? The baby is merely the means by which she controls you. After a while she will resort to type and make a cuckold of you. Is that what you want?”, the old man screamed. “Is that what you want?”

The young man’s reply was dismissive.

“Va fanculo old man. I live my life as I want to. My decisions are not subject to your approval. Have you made such a great success of your own life that you feel qualified to give me orders?”

The old man’s voice quivered with rage.

“Ungrateful wretch; you will be the death of your mother!”

I had heard more than enough and began to walk down the dark spiral staircase to the ground floor below. Usually there was an electric light on the stairs, but for some days all the bulbs had been burnt out and no one had bothered replacing them. It really made little difference as I knew the way down like I knew the back of my own hand. As I descended, I could hear the force of the winter winds buffeting the block of apartments outside. It was a cold January night, a little after seven, and I was meeting Mario in Piazza Garibaldi in just under half an hour. Usually, the walk would take about fifteen minutes, but tonight that time would be doubled due to the wind and at least two inches of snow on the ground. It was unlikely that there would be many people around on such a cold winter’s night.

When I stepped out of the apartment block, I was dismayed to see that the snow had started again. It was coming down thickly and I doubted that I would be able to arrive in Piazza Garibaldi in just twenty five minutes. Still, Mario would wait I thought. What else did he have to do?

Sheltering outside the silent building, I unfastened and then put up my strong blue and white canvas umbrella. It was actually a beach umbrella, but offered equal protection from rain and snow as from the sun. On a really windy night in Parma it might easily be blown inside out, but the weather was not that bad tonight. It was just a typically cold and inhospitable winter’s night in middle January. From the doorway of my apartment block where I still stood I could not see a single person passing by. Only a distant light, further down the road, in the direction of Piazza Garibaldi burned a fluorescent orange in the distance. This I knew was the light of the nearest bar and I resolved to stop by for an aperitivo on my way to the bridge which I would need to cross in order to reach Parma’s central Piazza.

I took a deep breath and thrust the umbrella out in front of me. Next I detached myself from my snug hiding place and plunged into the inclement night. The snow scrunched loudly beneath my feet as I hurried along. A dog barked in the distance and a cat miaowed laconically. It was a wretched evening and I was unlikely to meet many fellow travellers on the way to my appointment with Mario. Did I really have time to stop for an aperitivo? I was already late and if I broke my journey I was unlikely to arrive at Piazza Garibaldi before 7:45 PM. Still, Mario would wait. Yes...he would wait.

After five minutes of breathless battle with the snow and the wind I came abreast of the little bar, “Lo Scrigno”. I pushed open the door and passed into the welcoming heat inside. “Lo Scrigno” was empty but the barman, a familiar acquaintance, called out a pleasant greeting:

Buona sera, Giovanni. Perche sei fuori casa su una notte cosi’ tempestosa?

I hardly knew what to answer, but finally I told the old bar man the truth. I needed to see a friend in Piazza Garibaldi about an important matter that couldn’t wait. The old man’s eyes shone with curiosity. I was his only customer on this dismal evening and a little idle nosiness would no doubt make the time go easier until he could lock up the bar and slip into his warm bed, with his wife, in the small apartment where his family lived over the bar.

Lo so che hai tanti segreti, Giovanni. Comunque, sei Inglese e non capisci bene come le cose vanno qui in Italia. Perche non stai qui con me per un po’? Ti aiutero’ con il tuo cuore spaccato.

Cuore spaccato? I repeated to myself in wonderment. What did this old man know of my life in Parma?
Paolo (for such was the old man’s name) nodded his head wisely and then touched the side of his nose.

Si, signore. Non ti vedo da tanto con quella bella ragazza rossa. Era chiarissimo che eri innmorato di lei.
I gave a disconsolate grunt. What business was it of Paolo’s if I was nursing a broken heart? Anyway, the old man was wrong: it wasn’t true. I told him that he had a fertile imagination like most Italians and that he should mind his own business.

The old bar man smiled knowingly before recommencing.

Ho visto solo due casi di amore veramente grandi. Il primo era il secondo era l’amore fra tu e Eleonora.

Non parli senso! I spat out at the old bar man. Did everyone in this small town know everything about me and my deepest needs? Was I merely a source of gossip here for old men like Paolo and his even older wife Silvia? Why did I always feel that everyone in Parma knew everything about me and my problems? Wherever I went, knowing glances were constantly cast in my direction and I felt like the victim of some vast and baffling conspiracy. How did the people know so much? From where did they receive their information? Or was it all just my imagination? Were these emotionally sensitive people in some way able to sense and understand my changing moods--to see my feelings in my face? Perhaps they knew nothing tangible, but merely read an age old story in my darkly flickering eyes?

I finished my drink, paid and quickly left the warm bar, Paolo grinning at me stupidly as I made my exit. Outside, the snow was easing off a little and I didn’t feel the need to reopen my umbrella. I strode on past Via Botticelli on my right: the little road where my English friend Howard Verity lived with his Italian wife, Serena. Probably Howard was entertaining a few Italian guests as he did most evenings around this time. I had been to several of these little get-togethers where wine and food flowed freely, but Howard’s friends with their bourgeois attitudes bored me. Howard himself was beginning to bore me. Most of all, his tedious Italian schoolteacher wife bored me. Serena was a bitch.

After passing the street in which Howard’s home lay, I immediately came abreast of the old church, “San Antonio”. Here a small group of Franciscan monks lived and at least one or two of them could usually be seen hanging around outside the main entrance talking to acquaintances and passers by. Foolish old men with nothing better to do I reflected. Yes, there was someone out now, beneath the portico, talking in baroque tones to an old man with his dog. What on earth did they find to chat about? Human mortality? The grace of God? The faithfulness of dogs?

I passed the two old timers and took a sharp right turn on to the old bridge in the centre of Parma. Now there were more people to be seen, scurrying in this direction and that, determined to complete their unknown business before the snow started again and the clock should slip round another hour. In the distance, as I passed over the old bridge, I could see the burning yellow light shining out from Eleonora’s office on the third floor of the Via Mazzini building. I imagined her sat flirting with some Italian nonentity and cursed. Who could resist her red hair and sexy dark throated tones? She laughed with the dark saturninity of one who knew everything about her power over the male species. I cursed her silently.

Just now, my business was not with Eleonora and I crossed the bridge and strode past the building where the Italian girl crouched, sharpening her claws. The time was 7:45 PM and I was already more than quarter of an hour late for my appointment with Mario. But Mario would wait--if he had even arrived as of yet! Why not stop off for an espresso in the bar opposite Eleonora’s office and next to the apartment where she lived? They--her friends--would see me and I would see them (which was not necessarily a bad thing). Also, I could warm up a little prior to the exertions of the evening.

Inside the little cafe, I found there were about thirty people sat around or stood at the bar drinking mostly strong spirits. I felt a little hungry, so I ordered a panino with prosciutto crudo and a Jack Daniels whisky. The middle aged bar man recognised me but decided to say nothing--though he did glance over at a group of three or four men who sat at a table in the far corner of the room drinking from a large decanter of wine. I’d seen them before and thought them to be friends of Fabio’s. Naturally, they would report all my movements back to headquarters. Already, I sensed their interest in me and their eyes fixed quizzically on my back. One of them was dressed in a black overcoat, similar to my own, with a blue scarf around his neck. Obviously they had been sat drinking for a while, although it was hardly hot inside the bar: the outside door opened too frequently for that in order to let in frozen customers from the street.

It seemed that the boy in the black overcoat was paying me particular attention and he hardly attempted to disguise his interest. I felt pretty sure that he’d once eaten lunch with Eleonora and myself in the mensa at Parma University. I remembered that his manners had been charming--though he hadn’t actually said very much. Now he watched me with his pale blue eyes and whispered to his colleagues alternately. After a while, his friends began to steal surreptitious glances in my direction. I decided that it would be better to be moving on, so I finished the last bite of my panino, paid the bill and walked slowly out of the bar into the porticoed arcade outside. It had started snowing again, but at least I didn’t need to open my umbrella. The portico gave adequate protection from the inclement evening and I pushed on towards Piazza Garibaldi, now only a hundred meters ahead. The porticoed arcade was well lit and lots of people were to be seen flowing in both directions. One well-known face was caught in the light as he came pushing towards me from the opposite direction. On suddenly seeing me, his jaw dropped involuntarily and he hurriedly buried his chin in his scarf before hurrying past without an acknowledgment. I had been tempted to quote T.S. Eliot at him:

“Stetson, you who were with me in the ships at Mylae!”

Still, I reflected, it would hardly have been appreciated--and I really owed the man a severe beating rather than an ironic turn of phrase. I had lived in Parma for over two years now and too many people knew me, or knew of me: Indeed, I was almost famous! Two years! I reflected: so little real time had passed and yet water had hurtled under the bridge in a veritable torrent. The life I had lived before coming to Parma already seemed unreal and distant to me. Here, I had embraced my destiny in the midst of a people who lived constantly on the edge of their emotions. Some I loved and some I hated, but all demanded a response. Indifference was not an option.
Suddenly I passed out from the porticoed enclosure and there in front of me lay the almost deserted expanse of Piazza Garibaldi. In the summer, the many bars situated there, put out tables and chairs so their guests could relax in the mild summer air. In contrast, tonight everything seemed silent and glum as I headed towards the spot where I had arranged to meet Mario: beneath the equestrian statue of Garibaldi himself, in the very centre of the exposed piazza. Well before I arrived at the base of the impressive statue, it was apparent that Mario wasn’t there. I now had the problem of trying to figure out whether he was late himself or had got bored with waiting and gone home. I reflected for a moment. Knowing Mario, I decided that it was far more likely that he had not yet arrived. I looked around the desolate square and saw few signs of life in any direction. I would give him until eight I resolved. After that, I had to be getting under way.

Perhaps five minutes later, I spied Sceriffo ambling over to the spot where I waited. I despised the man, but sometimes he could give information that it was difficult to pick up anywhere else--always provided you were ready to buy him a drink.

Buonasera, called the uneducated voice as he neared the spot where I stood. Perche sei fuori su una notte cosi’ brutta?

I understood that I’d have to begin by replaying the earlier conversation I’d had that evening with the old man in the bar near to my house.

Ho un appuntamento col mio amico Mario. Dobbiamo parlare di qualcosa e dopo andremo in ristorante.

Solo tu e lui? shot back the odious Sceriffo. Non sembra il modo in cui ti comporti di solito.

I wasn’t in the right mood to fence with Sceriffo tonight and therefore I asked him a direct question.

“Have you seen Fabio this evening?”

Sceriffo shook his head. “No, I think he is at the university studying for a pressing exam. Some of his friends are in the bar opposite Eleonora’s office.”

I nodded my head. “Yes, I saw them sat down there just ten minutes ago.”

“They all like and respect you”, whined the unctuous Master of Ceremonies.

I nodded my head. “That’s good to know, Sceriffo.” I was looking beyond the slightly hunch-backed figure in front of me to another, approaching at speed, on an old motorino. The quickly moving figure was well wrapped up against the weather in a blue padded coat, red scarf and white hat pulled down over the ears. It was Mario and he pulled up beside us cutting out the engine on the little motorino. There was a big smile on his face.

Buona sera he intoned for Sceriffo’s benefit and then shook me by the hand.

“Sorry that I am late John”, he told me in his Italianate English, “but Ilaria phoned and I had to speak to her for a while”.

“That’s no problem”, I told him. “Shall we take a walk?”

Mario understood that the suggestion to take a walk was intended to get Sceriffo off our backs, so he nodded and we moved off together, Mario pushing his ancient motorino over the snow covered pavement. Ci vediamo, he shouted briefly over his shoulder at the little hunchback and Sceriffo waved his hand and smiled slyly.

It really wasn’t the kind of night to be walking aimlessly round, but we felt the need to communicate in open spaces when everyone we met seemed to have an ear cocked.

“How was your study today?” I asked Mario. After working for several years, he’d gone back to school and was taking his high school diploma this year.

“Tiring, as always”, he replied. Mario attended a private school in Modena and needed to travel in both directions by train--a journey of one hour each way. Nevertheless, he rarely complained much as he knew his father was paying a lot of money in order to nullify his son’s past mistakes. “What about you?” he enquired.

I shook my head. “Nothing special: the usual stuff. I received a phone call from Eva and she said that she wanted to meet us tonight in the pizzeria as she’s been working in central Parma all day.

Mario raised his eyebrows. “Oh yes? And what about Sharokh?”

Sharokh was Eva’s live in Persian boyfriend, who though born to great riches in the Iran of his birth, had been expelled with all his family after the revolution without a dollar to his name. Now he worked as an operaio, or factory worker. Eva was looking to dump him and we had formed a clandestine relationship--although Eva would have been more than happy to have made it more public. Eva came from Dusseldorf in Germany and, together with Mario, she was one of the very few people I completely trusted in Parma. I certainly never trusted Eleonora.