A Few Personal Thoughts about the War on Ukraine

As I mentioned in my previous post, I haven’t been on social media much ever since September 2021. Personal issues just took priority, and I decided to take a break from all the negativity I was subjecting myself to. I will talk about that in another post, as I still want to resume writing more or less regulary; it’s just that I’ve been quite busy with everything, so I haven’t had much of a chance to do so.
Still, if anyone who had me on social media is wondering how things are around here, with the war in Ukraine and everything: I’m fine, we’re fine. Sort of.

I’ve always considered myself European first and foremost, much more so than I’ve considered myself Italian. For me, “here” means Europe. And to get news about war taking places “here” is scary, concerning, disheartening. It’s also disappointing to see that the choices made by the European Union during the past decade with regard to the eastern situation were, well, pretty much wrong, to put it mildly. Then again, how should have that been played? Should sanctions have been applied when Russia invaded and claimed Crimea? Should fighter jets have been shipped to the area? I honestly don’t know, I genuinely have no idea. And “ifs” and “buts” can’t change history.

The fact remains that war is here and it’s something that I would have never expected. This may come as a shock to USians but we’re not used to wars, and most EU countries not only don’t even have conscription anymore, we also don’t have a fetish for the military. See, when your whole continent is wrecked by two destructive wars in the span of three decades, you realize that maybe that’s not best approach to things.

Back in 2015, this graph was shared by the European Union itself:

Yes, that’s a bit simplistic and self-celebratory. Yes, we did have the Yugoslav wars, which had their fair share of war horrors including genocide. Those were terrible, there is absolutely no denying that, and I will write about my own memories of those in a subsequent post. However, it’s worth pointing out that the whole idea of Yugoslavia was always complicated, and it was probably inevitable that it would end like that. Still, we also very recently had countries splitting up quite amicably, such as Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.

For many of us, especially those from my generation who grew up with the idea of Europe being united, seeing those images from Ukraine evokes a sense of uneasiness. We feel powerless, and we think about all the documentaries we saw of our own countries looking like that less than a century ago. Comparing Putin and Hitler is a futile exercise: they’re different in many ways, yet their actions are similarly wicked; if not in scale, for their effects.

It’s honestly difficult to explain how I, and many others, feel. It seems like history has sped up considerably. Lenin, of all people, famously said that “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

Countries like Germany and even Switzerland have abandoned their traditional pacifism to back sanctions. Several eastern countries, that is Ukraine, Moldava and Georgia, have formally applied to join the European Union. Ukraine’s own president regularly posts heartfelt appeals to the international community to do more. Meanwhile reports of war crimes keep coming: Russian tanks crushing civilian vehicles, shooting on supposed humanitarian corridors, bombing cities despite an alleged ceasefire, and shelling children’s hospitals.

And amidst all of that, regular Russian citizens, the vast majority of them, people like me writing and you reading, are jailed if they dare protest. And many people, the older generation especially, doesn’t know or believe what’s happening; and that’s not just in Russia, it’s happening even in Ukraine.

One word I’ve seen mentioned time and time again in these last few days, in posts and tweets and reports from and by people living there, is “brainwashing”, or even “state brainwashing”. It seems surreal at a glance, but think about all the fake news and hoaxes that people believe where you live. Think of how much easier covid could have been handled if only dangerous hoaxes hadn’t swept the planet worse than the virus itself. Think of Orwell’s “1984”. Think of Fox News in the US, or Mediaset’s newscasts in Italy. Is it really that hard to believe that people can be brainwashed when a single entity controls the media?

When I was in high school, the topic of media control came up. I can’t even remember the context, or even the teacher; I think it may have been the last Electronics teacher I had, because he was prone to going off on a tangent and talking about technology’s role in society (during my final state exam, he asked me about how the invention of transistors changed warfare; he didn’t even ask me about transistors themselves, he just wanted me to go philosophical.) Well, he said something about the media that I had never thought about. He asked: when a coup d’état takes place, what’s the first thing they try to seize control of? In our naïve teenage innocence, we confidently replied: the parliament. It makes sense, right? He shook his head, smirked, and said: no, they seize the media. The TV towers, the radio stations, the newspapers. Again, look at how wildly different narrative is in your native country, depending on which newspaper you read or what newscast you watch. People consider the media as inherently authoritative, so if you’re taking control of an area, you want to make sure that the only authoritative voice is yours.

And yet, while new technologies inherently promote the diffusion of fake news, they can also provide a way for information to spread when everything else seems to fail. It takes a lot of effort to tell what’s real and what isn’t, especially when time is short, people are literally dying, and it’s very easy to fall prey to emotion.

I don’t know how long this war will be. It’s clear that Russia expected this to be quick, and it didn’t go as well. This video explains some of the reasons, but keep in mind that things are happening very quickly and nothing is always as easy as it seems. Even “Putin is just crazy” doesn’t work, as a former Russian minister clearly explained.

I don’t know if the war will expand west, which is almost certain if a no-fly zone is declared in Ukraine. I don’t know what will happen if nuclear weapons are used by any party involved (or not yet involved). I don’t think anybody knows and, again, to know that this is happening “here”, in Europe, is scary at such a subconscious level that it’s hard to explain.

And — forgive me if I’m going to be more direct from this point on — what’s even harder to explain is how stupid it all seems when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Everyone’s got their arguments, and everyone’s right from some point of view or another. But then you see pictures of a woman in labor being evacuated because a maternity hospital has been bombed and there are dozens of children and newborns feared dead under the rubble, and pictures of dead people being buried in a trench turned into a mass grave, and you realize that we’ve just fucking failed as a species. Homo sapiens, human’s scientific name, means wise man. Sapiens my ass.

We talk so much of colonizing the universe, of tuning our bodies to rid us of disease, of living forever, and we can’t even be decent to one another. We hate on one another just because they were born on this or that side of a line on a map, or because their skin is a different shade, or they speak a different language. Hell, we hate on one another because they keep putting their garbage half a meter away from their designated spot and that just pisses us off and we want to strangle them for that. We are fucking stupid. All of us, collectively, as a species.

I saw a report earlier that thermobaric weapons have been used by Russia in Ukraine. I didn’t even know what that was, but I’ll spare you the search: it’s a bomb that uses fuel differently from a traditional one, so it causes more damage. A true feat of engineering, honestly. But then I read that their usage is only illegal if it’s against civilians. That made me laugh. I swear, I started laughing when I read that. How do you even enforce something like that? How do you apply rules to war? Seriously, how do you even do that? Even a declaration of war allegedly has rules, but if you’re attacking someone, why would you even care in the end?

It’s all very surreal, and overall stupid. Absolutely stupid. If we truly put our collective brains to good use, we would be doing truly great things. But we’re just a bunch of talking apes taking themselves way too seriously, so we just bomb the shit out of one another because we woke up angry.

Back in 1990 — Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were still around — we got a picture from Voyager 1, a little spacecraft that had been floating in space for 23 years at that point. It was 6.4 billion kilometers away. There’s a tiny little spot on the right side of the picture, right through that vertical streak:

Astronomer and cosmologist Carl Sagan famously described it as follows, and I have been thinking about this a lot during the past few weeks.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

As we once again fear for our collective demise, it’s impossible not to wonder: will we ever learn, before it’s too late?

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Italian luddites: the downfall of a country living in the past

If you were to describe my country, Italy, as a country fearful of change, you wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. If Italians could live under a bubble preventing time from passing, most of them would jump at the opportunity. I have come to the conclusion that most of my fellow countrymen are luddite by nature.

Technology is seen as something to be feared, rather than embraced. Something new comes along, and people of all ages — including part of the youth — will complain that it’s unnecessarily complicated, that things worked just as fine before, and that “back then” nobody was forced to learn anything new. I have wondered why people think this way for a few years now, and I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it has to do with history.

Even today, a hundred and fifty-one years after the unification of the country, most Italians don’t really feel like they are Italian. They are more likely to label themselves as coming from a certain region, city or even neighborhood. The North has been blabbering about independence for decades now, and the South is still stuck in the grip of organized crime, the mafia and its cousins sometimes being more popular and better-considered than the State. Indeed, the roots for such criminal organizations can be traced back to the bandits who fought against the forced “Northernization” of the peninsula — more specifically, the so-called Piemontesizzazione, as the first King of Italy just exported the bulk of Piemontese laws to the rest of the newborn country — immediately after the unification.

In a sense, that’s why Italians still today consider “the State” to be inherently evil and that it should leave people alone instead of meddling with their lives. You seldom find someone who thinks that s/he, as a citizen, is him/herself part of “the State”. Rather, most people will complain about “the State” and, why not?, rip it off if possible: after all, from their point of view it’s just reciprocation.

For this reason, each and every change is perceived as preposterous, required by the evil State for the sole reason of complicating the citizens’ life, not unlike the way a big, seemingly almighty cat plays with a tiny mouse solely for its own amusement.

But it’s with technology that Italians show their chronic opposition to change. Most people over 50 have no clue whatsoever about computers. Unless they are introduced to them by some younger member of the family, or through some mandatory course on their workplace, most senior citizens will be completely oblivious to computers. Even among those who do use them, most of them will remain antagonistic to the machine.
Even more worrying is the fact that many young people are virtually as uninterested to computers as such, save for the fields in which they are deemed useful from their point of view: (illegal) file sharing, homework (and plagiarism), social networking, porn and the like. The interesting thing here is that the same young people spend most of their time with a smartphone in their hands, yet refuse to learn the basics of computing. I personally know an eighteen-year-old who claims that she never really learned how to use a computer because she never found a use for them.

Most of my foreign readers are probably shocked at this point, but see, the sad truth is that in Italy the internet is not necessary to carry on with your daily life. Nobody expects you to have an email address, or to submit documents online. I know doctors who proudly take note of their appointments on a dear old paper calendar, rather than using a computer, an iPad, a smartphone or even a measly electronic “data bank” from the 90s. They are completely oblivious to the capabilities that a digital system can provide — such as keeping an easily searchable long-term log of appointments, or cross-referencing notes — because they are not familiar with the possibilities, and even if they were, they wouldn’t want to spend/waste any time learning how to use the system.

In this country, most companies don’t even have a one-page website. Those who do, seldom update it; it quickly turns into a stale flyer, but they don’t care. Who goes to the website, anyway? After all, if clients want some information they’d better just call: writing to a company’s e-mail address almost invariably results into never receiving a reply, or immediately receiving a notification that the recipient’s mailbox is full, a clear sign that it’s been left unchecked for the longest time.

When it comes to money, Italians’ fear for change goes into overdrive. Given the incredible level of corruption in the country, there have been feeble attempts at reducing the maximum amount that can be paid in cash, forcing any higher-value transaction to be carried out through means that leave a trail. Recently, this limit has been lowered to a thousand euros. One would expect that the strongest opposition to this would come from lobbying entrepreneurs, but no: the ones who complained the most were retired senior citizens. The new limit would prevent those among them who make enough (and the numbers are getting fewer and fewer) from picking up their whole pension in cash in a single visit to the post office. Of course, having it deposited to a checking account would solve the problem immediately, but many people in Italy do not have a checking account altogether, in part due to the fact that they have the highest fees in all of Europe. Indeed, many people only open up one when they are required to, such as when their employers insist that they are paid with a direct deposit, or when they need to purchase a house and need a mortgage.
Credit card usage is also lower than most of Europe, as many people simply don’t trust them (or lack access to them, if they have no checking account). I know people who only use them at ATMs to withdraw cash, which — albeit useful in emergencies — is quite a silly thing: why not just use them directly to pay in stores?

When I read that Sweden is starting to consider the wholesale (pun intended) elimination of cash as most Swedes use other means of payments and micropayments, I was stunned. That will never happen here. The people, the commoners if you will, would object too strongly, failing to see that it would actually lead to a greater accountability that would reduce most of the corruption. It would not make it entirely impossible to use money for bribes, of course, but it would require more careful planning than just not releasing an invoice or a giving out a receipt to clients. That alone would be an immense improvement, but then again, it requires a paradigm shift that most people are simply not willing to take out of laziness, rather than out of genuine concerns about privacy and tracking.

About a month ago, my region switched off all analog TV transmissions, finally entering the all-digital era. This was supposed to happen two years ago, but it kept being postponed over and over, in part due to the political agenda, and in part due to the fear that people would not be able to survive — metaphorically speaking, of course — the switch. It’s not hard: if you have a new TV, you’re already set; if not, you need to get a cheap converter box that you connect between the antenna and the TV. In some cases, as ironically happened to my very own household, you may need to call and pay a technician to replace and/or re-aim your antenna to improve reception. The government, years ago, even started a controversial campaign that allowed people to buy converter boxes at a discount, effectively semi-subsidizing the purchase of these devices. Yet, even today, many people are incredibly confused about the whole matter, and the refrain is always the same: why does my grandma need to learn how to use a converter box with a different remote? why does my grandpa have to spend money to get his antenna replaced? And mind you, these are the same people who complain that there’s nothing on TV. They may have to shell out some cash in some cases (though for most households the expense is simply the cost of the digital receiver, which retails for prices as low as €15), but they would get many more channels to watch for free after that. In most cases, moreover, the switch would be so simple that any nephew or grand-daughter can explain the eldest how to proceed.
The people who complain about how “the government did this to make us spend more money” (without realizing that the money spent, if any, goes to private companies, such as stores and antenna technicians) also fail to realize that the frequencies that get released will be auctioned off for mobile broadband, which will improve the availability of Internet access in areas currently not covered by DSL.

But, then again, who needs the Internet in Italy? The “Internet use in households and by individuals in 2011” report by Eurostat tells a fairly discouraging tale. A note for non-Europeans: “EU27” refers to the whole European Union, which includes 27 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom) as opposed to “Eurozone”, which refers to the 17 Member States currently using the Euro as their currency.

Whereas 73% of the households in the EU27 had Internet access in 2011 and broadband availability was at 68%, only 62% of Italian households have Internet access and barely 52% have broadband. This is in stark contrast with other Western European countries such as France (76% and 70%, respectively), Belgium (77% and 74%), Germany (83% and 78%) or the Netherlands (94% and 83%.) What’s most amazing is that Greece jumped from 25% and 7% in 2007 to 50% and 45% in 2011, and Romania jumped from 22% and 8% to 47% and 31% during the same time span. Italy’s increase is still remarkable (43% and 25% to 62% and 52%), but we remain steadily behind the average.

It gets worse when the actual usage of the Internet, rather than its bare availability in households, is taken into account. An average of 71% of EU27 citizens used the Internet within the 3 months before the survey, 73% used the Internet within the 12 months before the survey, and 24% never used the Internet. The report doesn’t state whether this means never used it at all, or never used it within the past 12 months; in any case, this is only marginally relevant for the sake of the analysis.
In Italy, only 54% used the Internet within the last 3 months and 57% within the last 12 months, while 39% never did. Comparatively, in France these values are 78%, 80% and 19% respectively, in Germany they are 81%, 83% and 16%. Scandinavian countries lead the chart, with Sweden chiming in at 93%, 94% and 5%, and Norway at 93%, 94% and 5%. Iceland shows an even higher Internet penetration, but I’m concentrating on mainland Europe here.

The important fact here is the number of people who never used the Internet. Italy’s value is 39%, the highest in Western Europe after Greece (45%) and Portugal (41%), while the EU27 average is 24%. That’s almost half as much.
Moreover, only 51% of Italians access the Internet at least once a week and only 49% do so daily, while in Germany these values are 77% and 63% respectively. Unsurprisingly, 82% of Norwegian users access the Internet daily, and 91% do so weekly.

Italians are also not very keen on purchasing goods or services over the Internet. Compared to an EU27 average of 43% over the past 12 months, only 15% of Italians carried out economic transactions over the web. This is an incredibly lower value compared to France’s 53%, Germany’s 64%, the Netherlands’ 69% and Norway’s 73%.
The report doesn’t tell the reasons for this negative achievement, but I think I can elaborate a little bit on that. As I’ve said in the first part of this article, Italians are somewhat afraid of change and are particularly opposed to payment methods other than cash. However, while you can enter a store and pay with notes and coins, you cannot do so over the Internet unless you choose cash-on-delivery options, which are normally more expensive. This, together with the ancestral fear of frauds, lack of widespread Internet access — Italy had one of the strictest law on public wi-fi that simply killed the so-called “Internet cafés” —, generalized computer illiteracy, very high shipping costs and incredibly complicated bureaucracy, effectively hinders any possibility of widespread adoption of electronic commerce. This is not to say that e-shops cannot thrive in Italy; many of them do (and I have first-hand experience of this, because in 2008 and 2009 I worked in a small store that also sold its products online), but most of the buyers are usually returning customers. It’s hard to make a company grow in such an environment, and online businesses shut down daily.

All of this unfortunately triggers a chain reaction: since few people use the Internet and therefore few people will buy online, few companies will be eager to make business online (and the few public authorities will invest in letting users deal with them over the web, given the investment required and the current state of the economy.)

In the EU27, 41% of people interacted with public authorities over the Internet in the last 12 months, but only 22% did so in Italy. The pattern repeats again: France chimes in at 57%, the Netherlands at 62% and Norway at 74%.
Italy’s percentage is only about half of the average, and that’s frankly not surprising. Our bureaucracy is so heavy and complex that moving even if new material were handled digitally, old certificates will probably never be transposed to the 21st century.

Again, I can provide first-hand experience: my parents live in Chieti but they married in my mother’s town, Vasto, which is located about 75 kilometers away. They need a marriage certificate, and the only way to have it is to go to the city hall in Vasto and request it there. There is simply no way to request it at the local city hall and have them get it via fax or something like that, let alone obtaining it directly online. Moreover, since it’s a semi-private act, the request cannot be delegated to some relative who lives there, so they have to be there in person. The most ironic part of this is that not only this will take the better part of a day and money to pay for gas and highway tolls, but the certificate itself will not even be free. But, once again, since very few people would request this kind of data online, there is no reason for public authorities to invest into a massive digital upgrade.

This whole chain reaction leads to an unpleasant conclusion: one of the reasons for Italy’s economy downfall is this country’s inability to change and become modern by embracing technology. What’s even sadder is seeing hordes of youths, the same youths who fiddle with their parents-funded smartphones all day long, puzzled in front of a computer screen. How can we expect things to improve if our future doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs are confused by paragraph styles in word processors?

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