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Monteverdi at 450

Saturday, 12 August, 2017 0 Comments

L’incoronazione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppaea”) is an opera by Claudio Monteverdi, who was born 450 years ago this year. First performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1643 carnival season, it describes how Poppaea, a courtesan in the service of the emperor Nero, achieves her ambition to be crowned empress. The coronation scene concludes with the Pur ti miro duet performed here by the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Spanish soprano Núria Rial.

Puglia: Ivanka and Donald to Monopoli?

Monday, 7 August, 2017 0 Comments

Puglia fact: Two years ago, Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, and their children, visited Alberobello, famous for its cone-shaped trullo houses.

Puglia fact: Two months ago, Manuel Neuer, the Bayern Munich and Germany goalkeeper, got married to Nina Weiss in Monopoli.

Puglia rumour: US President Donald Trump might accompany his daughter, Ivanka, to a wedding rumoured to take place in Monopoli, towards the end of August.

Meanwhile, here is Oliver Astrologo’s magnificent visual tribute to the beauty of Puglia.

Renzi, Machiavelli and the public platform

Monday, 5 December, 2016 0 Comments

Niccolò Machiavelli: “The demands of a free populace, too, are very seldom harmful to liberty, for they are due either to the populace being oppressed or to the suspicious that it is going to be oppressed and, should these impressions be false, a remedy is provided in the public platform on which some man of standing can get up, appeal to the crowd, and show that it is mistaken. And though, as Tully remarks, the populace may be ignorant, it is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields when a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it.” Discourses on Livy (1517), Book 1, Ch. 4 (as translated by LJ Walker and B Crick)

Whither now, Italy, after Matteo Renzi, a man of standing, appealed to the crowd, only to see his proposed reforms rejected by the public platform? The most pressing matter is the country’s banks, which have bad debts of €286 billion on their books. The third largest institution, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs a €5 billion recapitalisation, urgently. Although the situation is alarming, the can is kicked further down the road. The reason is that if the debts were written off, junior bondholders would take a massive hit, and many of these are ordinary Italians who bought useless bank debt.

Thanks to Renzi’s referendum, borrowing costs are increasing, making it very expensive to get capital for Italy’s zombie banks, and now there’s a government without a mandate. The fear is that the instability of Italy may spread from Rome to Brussels and beyond. Quoting Cicero, Machiavelli noted that the populace may be ignorant, but it is capable of grasping the truth.


Buongiorno! Amazon’s wake words in Italy

Wednesday, 27 July, 2016 0 Comments

Amazon apre un nuovo centro di sviluppo per l’intelligenza artificiale e il Machine Learning a Torino. That was the welcome news for Italy’s battered economy earlier this week. Translation: “Amazon to open a new artificial intelligence and machine learning development centre in Turin.” The charming capital of Piedmont will soon be home to a batch of software engineers and linguists developing machine learning capabilities for Alexa, Amazon’s cloud-based data and analytics service. This sentence in the press release stood out:

“Alexa usa l’apprendimento automatico in campi come il rilevamento delle parole di attivazione, il riconoscimento vocale basato sul cloud e la comprensione del linguaggio naturale.”

Question: How does one translate parole di attivazione? The available online Italian-English dictionaries are not up to the job and Google Translate offers “words activation” as its best shot. Close, but no cigar. In fact, parole di attivazione are “wake words”. Eh?

Amazon Echo To understand the function of wake words, get an Amazon Echo. This hands-free speaker connects to the Alexa Voice Service to play music, provide news, sports scores and weather forecasts. When you want to use your Echo, speak the word “Alexa” and the device comes to life instantly. That’s the “wake word”. If you have more than one Echo, you can set a different wake word for each. You can pick “Amazon” or “Echo” as the wake word. And that’s it. Why the paucity of wake words? Well, according to Veton Kepuska, author of Wake-Up-Word Speech Recognition, the challenge is to:

“Detect a single word or phrase when spoken in an alerting context, while rejecting all other words, phrases, sounds, noises and other acoustic events with virtually 100% accuracy including the same word or phrase of interest spoken in a non-alerting (i.e. referential) context.”

See the problem? In its search for usable wake words, Alexa needs ones that are not only easy to pronounce and remember, but are also rare enough that they’re not even used at the start of sentences. Very tricky. As things stand, it’s doubtful Echo owners will be able to choose their own wake word for a long, long time to come. The best hope of the Turin project is that the team there will create an expanded list of words that are unlikely to lead to too many false wakes. No false dawns. No hurry, in other words.

Turin is an ideal location for this venture. It’s the home of the slow food movement.

From Italy to Ireland

Saturday, 1 August, 2015 0 Comments

Born in Brescia, Matteo Bertoli now lives in Dublin, where he works as a freelance director and cinematographer. He took a trip to the south of the country with his girlfriend and shot this video of Cork and Kinsale with a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera. “Cork is built on the River Lee which divides into two channels at the western end of the city,” he writes. “The city centre is located on the island created by the channels… Kinsale is a popular holiday resort for Irish and foreign tourists… The town is compact with a quaint air of antiquity in the narrow streets.” Pieces of Ireland perfectly captures the fleeting nature of an Irish summer. Blink, and it’s gone.

Primo Levi remembers the horror of Auschwitz

Tuesday, 27 January, 2015 0 Comments

Primo Levi described his return to Italy from the Auschwitz concentration camp in La tregua (The Truce). The Truce In this Paris Review interview, Levi reminisces about one of the book’s characters: “You remember Mordo Nahum? I had mixed feelings toward him. I admired him as a man fit for every situation. But of course he was very cruel to me. He despised me because I was not able to manage. I had no shoes. He told me, Remember, when there is war, the first thing is shoes, and second is eating. Because if you have shoes, then you can run and steal. But you must have shoes. Yes, I told him, well you are right, but there is not war any more. And he told me, Guerra es siempre. There is always war.”

Today, as the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should strive to understand the revulsion that Primo Levi felt towards those who took part in the Nazi extermination campaign and also towards those who could have but did not speak out against it. In memory of the murdered millions, here’s an excerpt from The Truce:

“There is no rationality in the Nazi hatred: it is hate that is not in us, it is outside of man. We cannot understand it, but we must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Consciences can be seduced and obscured again — even our consciences. For this reason, it is everyone duty to reflect on what happened. Everybody must know, or remember, that when Hitler and Mussolini spoke in public, they were believed, applauded, admired, adored like gods. They were ‘charismatic leaders’; they possessed a secret power of seduction that did not proceed from the soundness of things they said but from the suggestive way in which they said them, from their eloquence, from their histrionic art, perhaps instinctive, perhaps patiently learned and practised. The ideas they proclaimed were not always the same and were, in general, aberrant or silly or cruel. And yet they were acclaimed with hosannas and followed to the death by millions of the faithful.”

The Belmonte club

Saturday, 13 December, 2014 0 Comments

“My mother is Irish, my father is Neapolitan. I was born in London but raised in West Cork. I’m a singer-songwriter living in London.” So says Francesca Belmonte. For the last five years, she’s been the lead singer for trip hop star Tricky, co-writing and performing on his latest album False Idols. Now, she’s striking out on her own.

From flash freezing to social freezing

Monday, 27 October, 2014 0 Comments

One of the joys of reading Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World lies in the many ways the author riffs on the butterfly effect. For example, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans marked not just the end of the Roman Empire and a huge setback for Christendom; it also led to an exodus of glass makers. Many of them found a welcome in Venice, but because their furnaces caused numerous conflagrations of the city’s wooden houses, they were exiled again, this time to the island of Murano, where they could do less damage. There, they flourished in a kind of watery Silicon Valley and came up with astonishing ideas thanks to their co-operation and competition with each other.

How We Got to Now One of these innovations plays a key role in Las Meninas, the great painting by Diego Velázquez. This Spanish masterpiece mixes reality and illusion and puts royalty in perspective by having the king and queen, Felipe IV and María de Austria, reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. The mirror was another Murano byproduct. By coating the back of crystal-clear glass with an amalgam of tin and mercury, the island’s glass makers created a shiny, reflective surface and the mirror was born.

Another example. In the chapter titled “Cold”, Johnson recounts the story of Clarence Birdseye, an eccentric American naturalist and entrepreneur, who moved his family to the Canadian wilds of Labrador in 1916. While fishing with some local Inuit, he noticed that the trout they pulled out of carved holes in the ice froze solid in seconds and tasted fresh and crisp when thawed out and cooked. He became obsessed with the puzzle of why ice-fished trout tasted better than the rest of the family’s frozen food and eventually figured out that it was all in the speed of the freezing process. Back in New York City, Clarence Birdseye created a flash-freezing food business and he sold his company for millions in June 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash. Today, Birdseye’s name is synonymous with frozen food.

The frozen food culture Birdseye created “would do more than just populate the world with fish sticks,” notes Johnson. The revolutionary thing is that “It would also populate the world with people, thanks to the flash freezing and cryopreservation of human semen, eggs, and embryos… Today, new techniques on oocyte cryopreservation are allowing women to store more eggs in their younger years, extending their fertility well into their forties and fifties in many cases. So much of the freedom in the way we have children now… would have been impossible without the invention of flash freezing.”

Seeing that companies are now promoting oocyte cryopreservation for their female employees, a more user-friendly term is needed for the process, hence, “social freezing.”

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now is nourishing food for thought.

“Pope Francis stopped at our house”

Tuesday, 29 July, 2014 0 Comments

To mark the first 500 days of his pontificate, Pope Francis did an interview with the Argentine magazine Viva, a supplement of the national daily, El Clarín. What has made the interview so popular is that the Pope gave a 10-point recipe for happiness:. “The Romans have a saying, which can be taken as a point of reference,” he noted. “They say: ‘Campa e lascia campà‘ (live and let live). That’s the first step to peace and happiness.” Next on the list was “giving oneself to others,” which is what he does here during a visit to Cassano all’Ionio:

Italy 2 : England 1

Sunday, 15 June, 2014 0 Comments

For commentary on the after-match inquest, let’s turn to Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The Shirt

Afterwards, I found him alone at the bar
and asked him what went wrong. It’s the shirt,
he said. When I pull it on it hangs on my back

like a shroud, or a poisoned jerkin from Grimm
seeping its curse onto my skin, the worst tattoo.

I shower and shave before I shrug on the shirt,
smell like a dream; but the shirt sours my scent

with the sweat and stink of fear. It’s got my number.
I poured him another shot. Speak on, my son. He did.
I’ve wanted to sport the shirt since I was a kid,

but now when I do it makes me sick, weak, paranoid.

All night above the team hotel, the moon is the ball

in a penalty kick. Tens of thousands of fierce stars

are booing me. A screech owl is the referee.

The wind’s a crowd, forty years long, bawling a filthy song

about my Wag. It’s the bloody shirt! He started to blub
like a big girl’s blouse and I felt a fleeting pity.
Don’t cry, I said, at the end of the day you’ll be back

on 100K a week and playing for City.

Gli Azzurri and Il Canto degli Italiani

Wednesday, 11 June, 2014 0 Comments

Marco Verratti, Andrea Pirlo, Mario Balotelli, Gigi Buffon, Lorenzo Insigne… Italy fans work the national squad into the lyrics of the country’s national anthem: Il Canto degli Italiani. Next stop: The Arena da Amazonia in Manaus.