bottleneck analysis

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Monthly Archives: June 2012

Education in Motion

on BART, between SFO and Oakland.

During the past year and a half I’ve been looking for something to do with my life – and not only mine – after graduating from my Master degree in Italy. Willing to keep studying and having enjoyed the US research environment, I decided to try applying – again – for a PhD program here. However, my previous and recent experience with the standard way of assessing applications, left me with a sour taste, again.

During my NEET (not in education, employment, or training) period, I kept enjoying the beauty of studying through libraries, where I entered thanks to my old IDs. It sure feels good to be involved in reading academic texts without the pressure of the exam. I had a project in my sleeve, so I just explored more and more the world of energy and tried to gain knowledge in fields where I lacked one. Freedom to read also gave me the possibility of reading novels and more political texts. Meanwhile, I struggled to earn a minimum for my subsistence, which I barely managed in such a bureaucratized world.

I concentrated my interest in a few projects that allowed me to be eclectic in my future path: the issue of hydrocarbons in the Arctic, the Bulgarian nuclear energy sector, the struggle for power and gas between the Kremlin and Gazprom, and the relevance of energy in diplomatic cooperation in the Caspian region. These might sound boring to many, but to me they spark interest and excitement. They are also deeply rooted in recent history, but they keep their impact in contemporary daily news. As I sit through conferences more and more frequently, I realize that what’s intriguing to some could be irrelevant to others.

Without much illusion of succeeding, thanks to the last drop of self-esteem that was left in me, I found the energy to apply for a very interesting Erasmus Mundus program. Erasmus Mundus was recently set up to link “Erasmus” countries – that have their university systems already interconnected through student, staff, and faculty exchanges – and third countries in the extended neighborhood of Europe, such as the Middle East, the Caucasus, Central Asia, etc. The program to which I submitted my application was a new one, coordinated by the University of Glasgow: the International Master in Russian and Central and Eastern European Studies (IMRCEES). The program had already existed for a few years, but this was the first year that the consortium obtained EU funds for it. Glasgow is in fact teamed up with a few other institutions from Poland, Estonia, Hungary, Finland, and Kazakhstan. As soon as I read Kazakhstan I became interested. I laid out my plan and submitted the many documents needed for the contextual application to the program and to the scholarship. A couple of months later, when my expectations for further education had vanished, I received a letter that confirmed my admission to the program. I shook my head: I had to change plans again, but this time it would have been more fun!

So I packed my luggage and tried my best to give and get a Glasgow impression by participating in the annual conference of my future department. I went there during my crazy May, just before my trip back to the US, on which I embarked with a very different motivation compared to the previous ones. This is my last stay in this beautiful and strange country for a while and I am going to use it as a trampoline for my next English-language adventure.

My first stop will be Scotland in September. There I will spend one academic year, trying to learn Russian one more time, carefully engaging with my professors on matters that my experience has told me a lot about, and enjoying the Tropical weather. One of the previous resolutions is clearly false, I’ll let you guess which one while I go to the store to buy a raincoat.

The next summer is going to be full of travels and surprises, as my plan is to go to Azerbaijan for research, but I might have to stop in Estonia first, for additional academic reasons. Anyway it goes, the 2013 summer term will be short, as I will continue my eastbound ride to Kazakhstan, to the former and prospective capital city of Almaty, which is supposed to re-gain its status in 2017. I will spend another academic year there before completing yet another thesis, in order to gain yet another Master degree. What will this lead to? There’s no use in asking, as my future keeps changing weekly.

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Noi non siamo razzisti

Oakland, CA

Questa è la traduzione di un’articolo che ho scritto di getto, tra autobus e metropolitana, dopo una illuminante discussione sul razzismo negli USA, con alcuni amici. Dopo aver letto un articolo su La Sicilia dove compariva una citazione di un assessore comunale di Giarre che mi ha spinto a scrivere l’intero articolo sul cellulare, senza mai staccare le dita dai tasti o lo sguardo dallo schermo. Sì, mi sono perso la vista di San Francisco, per una volta, ma spero serva a qualcosa.

Il modernissimo consigliere comunale Josè – che è anche mio padre – aggiorna il suo status su facebook incollandovi un intero articolo di giornale. Sono sicuro di avergli mostrato almeno una dozzina di volte come inserire links oppure scrivere delle “note”, molto più agevoli e meno ingombranti di uno status-papiro. Ma tant’è. Scorrendo tra le righe leggo le solite vecchie notizie sullo stato dell’arte dell’incompiuto siciliano. Poi un lampo, un virgolettato. Ma qui mi fermo e fornisco un po’ di informazioni utili a chi non è familiare con il tema in oggetto o a chi avesse le idee confuse.

Giarre è la capitale italiana delle opere incompiute. Stadi, piscine, teatri… a voi scoprire cosa non abbiamo finito. C’è anche un “campo di polo” dove i cittadini vanno a correre e i ragazzini vanno a scuola calcio, presso le sparute società che sono ancora vive nell’area etnea. L’intera struttura fu costruita grazie al denaro fluito da Roma per i Mondiali di Calcio del 1990. Nei pressi di questa struttura non potrebbe essere organizzata alcuna attività o alcu, eccetto centri di raccolta in caso di emergenza e atterraggio per l’elisoccorso. A Giarre, una cittadina di appena 27.000 abitanti, in pochi hanno visto un elicottero atterrare al campo. Pochissimi hanno mai sentito parlare di “polo” in riferimento a uno sport, e non a magliette o caramelle. La struttura non è mai stata compleatata perché il denaro destinato alla sua costruzione è passato attraverso il filtro della corruzione politica, indubbiamente scortato dai vasi di ferro della mafia.

Spesso, quando mi trovo in Sicilia, visito la struttura e ultimamente ho notato che i ragazzini che giocano per la scuola calcio che mio padre ha fondato con alcuni amici sono costretti a correre su una superficie decisivamente peggiorata rispetto a quella che, ricordo, calpestavo dieci anni fa. Oggi, le stanze che ospitano gli uffici della società (non ufficiali, non registrati e non assicurati) sono costantemente oggetto di vandalismo. Dietro gli immensi e vuoti spalti riposano dozzine di campane per il riciclaggio di rifiuti, che una volta, quando l’amministrazione fingeva di riciclare i rifiuti urbani e invece trasferiva tutto negli stessi camion della nettezza urbana, si trovavano in molti punti della città. Accanto a questi giganti assonnati, alcuni spacciatori sprecano i loro pomeriggi indisturbati, troppo vicini ai bambini e agli adolescenti che giocano a calcio venti metri più in là.

Il campo di “polo” dove i ragazzini sognano l’erba

Un altro elemento importante per completare la descrizione storica è la caduta di cenere vulcanica dalla vicina Etna. Dal 2002, i fenomeni di parossismo si sono moltiplicati e continuano a molestare la tranquilla vita del paese.

L’amministrazione comunale è stata conquistata per due mandati consecutivi dalle forze conservatrici che lasciano che i “favori” dettino le priorità di gestione municipale e che hanno permesso una dura crisi di bilancio. Adesso, infatti, non sono rimasti neanche i fondi necessari per le pulizie “ordinarie” degli spazi pubblici, il che è un dovere primario per le istituzioni locali (“la manutenzione ordinaria è nella funzione dell’amministrazione pubblica” ricorda Josè, intervistato dallo stesso giornalista). Anche la pulizia della sabbia vulcanica dovrebbe rientrare tra i compiti di un’amministrazione diligente. È invece toccato ai calciatori e ai corridori portare scopa e paletta per utilizzare la malandata pista d’atletica. Uno sforzo di grande valore, che non è stato neanche notato o applaudito dall’amministrazione, che ha preferito nascondersi al fine di evitare di lasciare traccia dei suoi misfatti e delle sue omissioni.

La goccia che ha fatto traboccare il vaso della mia pazienza, però, non è arrivata né da Milano, né da Londra. Da Milano, alcuni ragazzi pieni di creatività (che tuttavia relego nella categoria etnografi* zoologi umani) hanno portato alla luce dei mass media la questione dell’incompiuto, sottolineando l’incapacità tutta siciliana di finire ciò che si comincia. Da Londra, invece, gli etnografi zoologi umani britannici hanno pubblicato un documentario su di noi, sui siciliani più pigri. No, ciò che mi ha fatto incazzare (perdonatemi l’espressione) è stato un virgolettato innocente riportato nell’articolo che menzionavo prima.

Giuseppe Cavallaro, ormai ex-assessore allo sport, è stato ingenuo abbastanza da pronunciare queste parole:

C’è un’associazione di ragazzi del Burkina Faso, rifugiati politici, ospiti alla parrocchia Regina Pacis, che vorrebbero inserirsi e socializzare con la comunità locale. Potrebbero aiutarci a curare il verde come volontari, assicurati contro eventuali infortuni.

Ho dovuto leggere e rileggere la dichiarazione più e più volte. Una dichiarazione che arriva da un corresponsabile della crisi finanziaria del Comune, inadeguata innanzitutto perché, come già detto, è responsabilità dell’amministrazione garantire la pulizia ordinaria degli spazi pubblici. Impiegando residenti, pagando loro un salario dignitoso, mettendoli in regola anche dal punto di vista contributivo (perché sento il bisogno di sottolinearlo?), non elemosinando opere di volontariato.

Il motivo principale del mio sdegno, tuttavia, è l’imperdonabile assunto che mostra la forma mentis razzista tipica degli europei e che è stata sempre difficile da identificare per me, nato e cresciuto nella cattolica e conservatrice Sicilia. Sono africani, quindi è ovvio che debbano lavorare per poco o nulla (in quest’ultima accezione, si tratta di schiavitù, non di volontariato, perché non presuppone la libera scelta dell’individuo). Essi sono abituati a queste condizioni! Pulisci, presto, sistema il caos creato dalla natura… e già che ci sei, metti a posto anche il casino che l’uomo bianco ha lasciato dietro di sé! Sono rifugiati politici? Meglio! Almeno non sono clandestini e per sfruttarli non dobbiamo neanche andare contro la legge!

Non ci sono tante persone bionde in Sicilia, così come la pelle olivastra dei meridionali è una rarità nelle province del nord. L’Europa non è abituata a mescolarsi. Adesso che più persone con diversi background culturali e geografici hanno conquistato il diritto di viaggiare liberamente in Europa, la paura dello slavo si è aggiunta alla difficile relazione tra francesi e magrebini, al problema degli italiani con i rom e con gli albanesi e al tentativo tedesco di capire come comportarsi con la minoranza turca che la Germania ospita. Per noi europei è necessario guardare i film americani per pronunciare la parola “razzismo”. Noi non capiamo le sue cause e le sue manifestazioni. Questo ci fa razzisti anche quando pensiamo di non esserlo. Mi vergogno del linguaggio offensivo e razzista usato da un membro dell’amministrazione del Comune presso il quale risiedo e mi dispiace che coloro a cui piace definirsi i discendenti della cultura democratica non riescano a realizzare che sono anche gli eredi della cultura razzista che ha causato le peggiori diseguaglianze e le violenze più aberranti della storia umana.

I rifugiati politici del Burkina Faso ospitati a Giarre non vivono lì per scelta. Loro non godono dei vantaggi di vivere in Europa, non sono agevolati dalle opportunità che il trattato di Schengen concede. No, se vogliono trovare il loro posto in società, devono chiedere l’elemosina. Devono dirigere le proprie preghiere verso supponenti palloni gonfiati che non hanno di meglio da dire che: “facciamoli lavorare come schiavi!”. Quindi ci sono due parti in questa brutta storia: 1) la dichiarazione dimostra i misfatti di un’amministrazione che non tiene conto dei suoi doveri minimi verso la popolazione che l’ha delegata; 2) la soluzione proposta è chiaramente razzista in quanto suggerisce l’uso dei rifugiati africani per compiti per cui sono logicamente adatti.

* gli etnografi zoologi umani per me sono individui che provano a giustificare la supremazia di una cultura sulla base delle tradizioni etniche dei popoli. Chiedete agli etnografi britannici, russi, francesi, italiani, spagnoli, cosa pensassero degli esotici indiani, africani, magrebini, caucasici, sudamericani…

UPDATE: Grazie ad alcuni amici, ho dovuto emendare questo articolo. Mi è stato suggerito di essere più esplicito nella condanna della frase razzista del politico locale, cosa che ho provato a fare nel paragrafo in rosso. Inoltre, ho ricevuto una spiegazione dettagliata sul mio incorretto uso della parola etnografo. La mia accezione negativa della parola proviene dai tempi coloniali, quando etnografia e antropologia stavano solo cominciando ad essere inseriti nei dibattiti accademici. Il relativismo culturale da allora ha portato a una più profonda comprensione dell’altro. Tuttavia, il razzismo e il sentimento di supremazia non sono concetti relativi. Per questo motivo, pur preferendo zoologo umano e scusandomi verso i molti validi etnografi, continuo a sostenere che provare a comprendere l’altro senza neanche un pizzico di razzismo o di sentimento di supremazia sia molto difficile per gli occidentali. Spero che ne nasca un dibattito costruttivo.

Europe Is Not Racist

Oakland and San Francisco, CA

I’ve been messy with this blog. I stopped for a while due to assignments and travels. And now that I come back, I disregard previous drafts and write a piece in English about a local Italian issue. You’ll discover through the lines how this is not just local or Italian.

Reading the usual news about some unfinished infrastructure in Italy was not yielding new material for my brain until I noticed a quote. Let’s give a little background to this.

Giarre is the Italian capital for incomplete public structures. Stadiums, pools, theaters… you name it. There’s a “polo” field where citizens go running and kids play soccer with the few sports teams that are still alive in the area. The whole structure was built with the money that the national budget allocated for the World Cup in 1990. Now nothing could technically occur within its premises, except from emergency gatherings and helicopter landings. Few people in Giarre, a little town of 27,000 inhabitants, have seen an helicopter land in their town. Only a handful has ever heard of “polo” as a sport (not a shirt, not a popular candy).

The “polo” field, where kids dream of turf.

The structure was not completed because the allocated money passed through the drain of political corruption, undoubtedly overseen by the mafia’s blinking eye.

I often visit the structure when I’m in my hometown and I noticed that the kids playing for the team founded by my father play soccer in worse conditions than I did 10 years ago. Now the rooms that host the offices of the team (unofficial, unregistered, and uninsured) are constantly subject to vandalism. Behind the immense and empty bleachers, lay dozens of recycling “bells” – containers as tall as 6″ and as wide as 4″ that used to be around the city, when the administration pretended to be recycling the citizen’s waste, instead dumping it all in the same garbage truck – next to them, drug dealers waste their afternoons too close to the young 6-14 year old soccer pupils.

Another important piece of background information is the fall of ash from the nearby Etna volcano. Since 2002, these phenomena have multiplied and keep disturbing the quiet life of the town.

The municipal administration has been conquered for two consecutive terms by conservative forces that keep “favors” as the first priority and have severely worsened the balance in the budget. So now they don’t have money left even for “ordinary” cleaning, which is a minimum requirement for local administrations. Among ordinary tasks, there is that of cleaning up the coat of volcanic ash that often covers streets and other public spaces. The soccer team and the citizens who like to have a clean track to run on have decided to do it themselves and brought sweeps and brooms from home to restore the cracked red track. Valuable effort that has not been even noticed or acknowledged by the administration, which has been ducking in order to avoid any public record of their misdeeds.

The straw that broke my camel back was not the fact that a few creative Milanese guys (that I shall call “human zoologists” ethnographers* in my own derogatory concept of the word) have brought the issue to light in the mass media, highlighting the incapability of Sicily in finishing what it starts; nor was the fact that British ethnographers human zoologists (again) from the BBC have issued a documentary on us, the Sicilians of the laziest kind. No, what pissed me off (pardon the expression) was an innocent quote reported in a local newspaper.

A member of the administration was naïve enough to utter:

there are a few political refugees from Burkina Faso. They are hosted by a local church and often ask for integration activities. We should devise a system that allows them to volunteer as street cleaners, with assignments to the polo field as well, provided that we ensure that they’re covered by health insurance during their working hours.

I had to read the quote two, five, ten times. Coming from one of the responsibles for the financial breakdown of the town, this statement is absolutely inappropriate because it should be in the administration responsibility to provide the “ordinary” cleaning service of public spaces. By employing people, paying them a wage and contributing to their pension fund, not by begging for volunteers.

Most importantly, however, this statement inexcusably shows the European racist mindset that has been so hard to identify for me, a boy born and raised in catholic/conservative Sicily. They’re Africans, therefore they are supposed to do cheap/slave labor. That’s what they’re used to. Clean up, hurry, tidy up the mess caused by nature… and now that you’re there, clean up the white man’s mess too. Political refugees? Whatever, at least they’re not clandestine, so we can exploit their work without breaking the law.

Blonde people are a rarity in Sicily, as tanned southerners are unusual in the northern provinces. Europe is not used to mixtures. Now that more and more folks with diverse geographic and cultural backgrounds are free to travel Europe, the Slavic fear has joined France’s uneasy relationship with Maghrebis, Italy’s problem with Roma and Albanians, and Germany’s struggle for understanding its Turkish Gastarbeiter population.

In Europe we usually have to watch an American movie to say the word “racism”. We don’t understand its causes and its manifestations. This makes us racist even when we think we’re not. I am ashamed by the offensive and racist declaration of a member of the town administration and I regret the fact that those who call themselves the descendents of a democratic culture do not acknowledge that they’re also the heirs of a racist culture that has caused the worst inequalities and violences in human history.

The political refugees from Burkina Faso hosted in Giarre are not there by choice. They don’t enjoy the benefits of living in Europe, they are not blessed by the opportunities given by the Schengen treaty. No, if they want to find their place in society, they have to beg. They have to direct their prayers to pretentious douchebags that have nothing better to say than: “let’s have them do some slave labor!”. So there’s two sides to this story: 1) the declaration shows the wrongdoing and the disregard for administrative practices by the City Government; 2) the solution proposed is outrageously racist in that it suggests the use of African refugees for a task they are logically suitable for. 

*I forgot to define better my derogatory concept for “human zoologists”  ethnographers. They’re not just armchair-anthropologists, they’re condescending figures that are appointed by a State in order to show the superiority of the invading culture with respect to the exotic practices of the colonized population. Russians with Caucasians, Brits with Indians and Sub-Saharian Africans, Italians with North and East Africans, French with Maghrebis, Spanish with Central and South Americans, yes, Europe has led this pretentious race as well.

UPDATE: Thanks to a couple of friends, I had to amend this post. It was suggested to me to be more explicit in the condemnation of the racist statement by the politician, which I tried to do in the red section. Also, I received a detailed explanation about my wrong use of the word etnographer. My derogatory conception of the word comes from the colonial times, when ethnography and anthropology were just starting to be inserted in a more ample academic debate. Cultural relativism has since brought a much deeper understanding of the “other”. However, racism and supremacism are not relative concepts. That is why, although switching to human zoologist and apologizing to the many valid ethnographers out there, I still hold the belief that it is very hard for westerners to try and understand “other” kinds of societies without adding even a hint of our racist and supremacist self. I hope a larger debate ensues.

May I Hop On? – Irish Chapter

Cork and Dublin, Ireland (May 3rd-11th)

Traveling is made easier when you end up at your friends’ place. Plus you get to know new people that quickly turn into “first-degree” connections. This month of May is full with new faces, new places as well as the dearest old faces and places. Just over a year ago I started this blog and it would have been hard to even imagine what occurred since then. I’ve been out of school, split between Sicily and California, striving to make a profession out of my passion. Obviously, it hasn’t worked yet and in a few occasions I could have drifted away to a real job, even one that doesn’t satisfy my intellectual thirst. But I decided to wait.

I focused more and more on my academic interests and I enjoyed international exposure with the publication of my thesis as a book and the output of a few articles in online publications (check out the “about” page). Most importantly, I participated in three conferences in the European English-speaking Islands (EEsI, as an easy reference – Albion doesn’t really fit in today’s political and cultural environment) and prepared presentations and papers for them. These occasions are  a “perfect venue for high-level exchange of academic knowledge, which encourages cogent analyses of the most recent events to be rooted in profound historical grounds” as I wrote in the report for the one in Cork. It’s a shame that for such important events, little support is given to the researchers on average. The IARCEES has been the most generous so far, although all are struggling with funds and university bureaucracies. Such symposia, however, are not to be missed; there’s simply too much to learn and to network. Plus, it is conventional in academic meetings to be as much kind and welcoming in the introduction of a speaker, as fierce and strict in the remarks and evaluations of his or her analysis. Intellectual battles, at least here in the land of fair play, are the most insightful and stimulating ones.

But here it’s not the place to dwell more on the content of the conferences. Instead, a description of the places I visit should be relevant for the readers and for me as a future reference.

Ireland is drunk and cloudy. No, it’s not really that bad, but these are its only two visible defects. There’s too many any-age beings that sway around the sidewalks in a constant state of haze. More, you can’t really go out without a coat, an umbrella, and rain-proof shoes, because you never know what weather you’ll face. Cork is increasingly becoming an international town, although not so much for its college. The “business park” (and, chiefly, the welcoming business environment) has brought many multinational companies to the area next to the airport. Many young Europeans are now working in customer service, technical support, and project management, flooding the second largest city in Ireland (still pretty small) with a diverse and fervent livelihood. Many come for a short term (and to perfect their language skills) but end up staying, captured by the good sides of Ireland. Apropos of good sides, I kept quiet for too long about the most amazing highlights of the Irish island: the people are fun, interesting, and kind, all the time; the traditional landscape is well preserved and full of history; the food is nice, even though a few coupling of ingredients are pretty wierd; monuments and sunsets are pretty in a peculiar way.  The smell and the light are typical of the EEsI: I find them, unchanged, over and over again every time I come here.