Thursday, February 28, 2013

Discontent on both sides of the Med

Stability in Europe depends on stability along the southern rim of the Mediterranean Sea.
This was one of the key points in a message from the Portuguese president of the EU Commission, José Manuel Barroso, at the start of a conference last week entitled “Thinking out of the box: Devising new European policies to face the Arab Spring.”
Two days of speeches from the conference podium and discussions at roundtable sessions and in workshops at the University of Minho in the north of Portugal, involved academics from a variety of disciplines and countries. They explored how best to address the on-going consequences of the social and political upheavals in North Africa.
Participants focused on the complexities of such matters as security risks, border controls and fears of mass migratory movements across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.
In setting the tone, Barroso said: The process of change is just beginning and the transitions are far from complete. It will take time until we can say whether all those young men and women who came to the streets to demonstrate against authoritarian regimes will see their expectations fulfilled.”
He emphasised “that events in our neighbourhood have a special importance for the future prosperity and stability of the European Union.”
When negotiating with the EU, the governments of North Africa must take into account the views of their people. And the EU needs to develop a stronger engagement directly with civil society organisations in the Arab countries, he said.
Barroso added that the EU is offering “support to economic reforms” in the Arab Spring countries as “part of a wider strategy to promote inclusive growth, create more jobs and tackle social challenges.”
A few days later, the president’s words sounded strangely apt in a different context when representatives of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank – the so-called ‘Troika’ of lenders – arrived in Lisbon to assess the latest economic situation here.
They were greeted by an announcement from the Que se Lixe a Troika (Damn the Troika) movement of renewed mass demonstrations across the country. A cacophony of opposition politicians, trade unionists, street protesters and the Portuguese public at large is declaring that the severe austerity programme insisted upon by the ‘Troika’ is stifling and simply not working.
“The fiscal targets are unachievable. Social conditions are worsening and democracy is suffering. Worst of all, people have no reason to believe the future will be any better. The programme has failed and it has to be changed,” declared an editorial in Público, one of Portugal’s most respected daily newspapers.
More than two years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’  at the dawn of the Arab Spring, which brought down oppressive governments, demonstrators in this country are reviving Grândola, Vila Morena, the song that became synonymous with the 1974 ‘Carnation Revolution’, which  toppled Portugal’s last dictatorship.
Not on the scale of the turmoil in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia of course, but discontent in normally placid Portugal is simmering and seems to be heading towards boiling point.
The clear message from those taking part in the latest anti-austerity protests is that the time has come for not only new economic policies, but also a new government, one that respects the views of the people. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

The never-ending flow of fake money

Huge quantities of counterfeit cash hit the headlines this week. It made a change from the relentless, dismal news about the shortage of the real stuff.
A Portuguese police raid on Tuesday resulted in what has been described as “the world’s largest seizure of counterfeit euros.” It was an interesting comeuppance in what is regarded as “the world’s second oldest profession.”
The seizure in the northern city of Oporto comprised 1,901 fake €200 banknotes with a face value of €380,200. The notes were of “exceptional quality,” according to the police. Only one person was arrested - a 46-year-old foreigner.
Earlier this month police broke up a ring of five Portuguese nationals allegedly counterfeiting or passing on €30,000 worth of fake €20 and €50  notes.
In another counterfeiting story this week, the British intelligence service MI5 revealed that Nazi Germany succeeded in “destroying” the credibility of British bank notes during the Second World War by flooding Europe with forgeries.
Secret documents just released show that the Nazis began forging British currency in 1940 as part of Germany’s invasion plan. The idea was  both to raise money for the Nazi cause and to create a lack of confidence in the British currency.
The Germans initially released the forgeries in neutral Portugal and Spain. It apparently worked well. According to an MI5 report written in 1945: “What they subsequently produced was a type of forgery so skillful that it is impossible for anyone other than a specially trained expert to detect the difference between them and genuine notes.” By the end of the war, the fake cash was so plentiful that Bank of England notes would not be accepted on the Continent.
Counterfeiting has been going on since money was first issued in ancient societies, starting from about 600BC. It used to be an offence punishable by death. England’s most infamous female counterfeiter, Catherine Murphy, was burnt at the stake in 1788, the last person to be so executed in Britain.
Portugal has the dubious distinction of having produced one of the most notorious counterfeiters of all time. His name was Artur Virgilio Alves dos Reis. Born in Lisbon in 1898 the son of an undertaker who went bankrupt, Reis’ subsequent obsession with his profession brought out the best and the worst in him.
A consummate conman as well as a highly successful criminal entrepreneur, Reis glossed over his modest education by falsifying impressive credentials in engineering and various sciences, supposedly awarded by Oxford University. Crooked activities in Portuguese Angola turned him into the major shareholder of Transafrican Railways and a very rich young man. 
Back in Lisbon and still in his mid twenties, Reis immersed himself in outrageously innovative shenanigans that put into circulation escudo banknotes amounting to the equivalent of almost 1.0% of Portugal’s GDP. He did this by inveigling a legitimate British banknote printer into producing totally unauthorised Bank of Portugal currency. The Bank of Portugal had to order the withdrawal from circulation of all 500 escudo banknotes in the country. The so-called Portuguese Banknote Crisis of 1925 had enormous political as well as economic consequences.
Reis was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. Upon his release from jail he was offered a job as a bank employee.   He turned it down.
By comparison to the 1925 case, this week’s seizure in Portugal seems modest. Although it may arguably have been the biggest single haul in the history of the euro, the French police in 2004 reportedly rounded up about €1.8 million from two laboratories after an estimated 145,000 counterfeit €10 and €20 notes had already gone into circulation.
In modern times, computer and advanced photocopying technology has greatly enhanced traditional counterfeiting skills, forcing official printers to devise much more sophisticated techniques. Still, countless phony banknotes in all kinds of currencies are said to be in circulation and going undetected.
Here are a few tips for checking euro notes. Real notes are made of a special cotton material that makes them feel firm, not flimsy, when you run  a finger along the edge.
All euro notes feature a hologram. On €20, €10 and €5 notes the hologram is a band running all the way down the front right-hand side. On €50 notes and higher, the  hologram is a squat design located on the front lower right. In normal light, the holograms show the denomination value, but when you hold the note up to a bright light you should see not the value but euro symbols and tiny numbers and letters.
Also when holding notes up to a light, check for a watermark image on the front left-hand side, and a dark magnetic security thread crossing near the middle.
Held under a strong light and tilted at a 45º angle, a vertical band with euro signs and the denomination should be visible near the middle on the back of €5, €10 and €20 notes.
When €50, €100, €200 or €500 notes are held under a strong light and tilted back and forth, the  hologram should alternatively display the denomination and either the image of a window or a doorway (as pictured here).  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Pope makes way for a younger pontiff

The initial shockwaves that followed Pope Benedict’s resignation announcement this week were followed surprisingly quickly by expressions of approval and optimism.
Benedict XVI, 85, is the first Pope to resign in six centuries, but the feeling is that he has done the right thing, bearing in mind not only his age, but the parlous state of the Catholic Church. The feeling in Portugal and elsewhere is that a younger and more energetic pontiff is now needed.
Among the first senior members of the Church in Portugal to comment publicly was the Bishop of Fátima, Monsignor António Marto. He said the resignation would present an opportunity to pick a new pope from a country in the developing world.
Europe today is going through a period of cultural tiredness, exhaustion, which is reflected in the way Christianity is lived,” Bishop Marto told reporters. “You don't see that in Africa or Latin America where there is freshness, an enthusiasm about living the faith.
“Perhaps we need a pope who can look beyond Europe and bring to the entire church a certain vitality that is seen on other continents.”
The “cultural tiredness” of which Bishop Marto spoke is reflected in the fact that although nearly 90% of people in Portugal profess to be Catholic, fewer than 20% regularly attend Mass. The figure could be much lower than that, especially among the young.
In 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Benedict was known under his predecessor Pope John Paul II, gave the official interpretation of the long suppressed “Third Secret” of Fátima that stemmed from the reported appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fátima on six consecutive months in 1917. They have been described by the Vatican as “undoubtedly the most prophetic of modern apparitions.”
Ratzinger dismissed notions that the third secret was the Virgin Mary’s warning of doom, either for the Church or the whole world. In a lengthy theological commentary, he spoke of such things as “private revelation” as opposed to “public revelation.” His explanation of the contents and meaning of the third secret was widely criticised as a 'cover-up.'
Since then, growing secularism, opposition from dissident Catholic traditionalists and child sex abuse scandals have drawn a great many people away from the Church in Europe and North America. Meanwhile, Church attendance is growing in Africa and almost half the world’s Catholics live in Latin America.
While on his way to visit Portugal in May 2010, Benedict XVI declared that the widespread abuse of children by members of the clergy showed that the greatest threat to the Catholic Church came from “sin within.”
“Today we see in a truly terrifying way that the greatest persecution of the Church does not come from outside enemies, but is born of sin within the Church,” the pontiff told reporters on a plane bound for Portugal to mark the 93rd anniversary of the reported apparitions.
A turnout of some half a million people for an open-air Mass celebrated by Benedict at the Fátima shrine was seen as clear support for him personally.
“As far as the crisis and scandals are concerned, I think that the people wanted to show that they can distinguish between exceptions and the vast majority of their priests,” Portuguese episcopal spokesman Manuel Morujão told reporters.
But the pontiff continued to court controversy after Portugal had already decriminalised abortion and at a time when the country was about to legalise gay marriage. He told Catholic social workers at Fátima that abortion and gay marriage were “insidious and dangerous threats to the common good.”
All that is in the past now, of course. Catholics are looking to the future. Benedict has emphasised that he is retiring “for the good of the Church.” The conclave of cardinals will begin the process of finding a new pope on March 15.
The Cardinal Patriarch of Lisbon,  D. José Policarpo, took part in the election process in 2005 and was himself described as “a dark horse” candidate to replace John Paul II. He said this week that Benedict’s eight year pontificate had been a very difficult one and hoped his resignation would result in a younger pontiff with the ability to lead the church into a new era.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Asteroid on track for close encounter

Having survived the widely predicted end of the world a couple of months ago, another fantastically fearsome event is right on schedule - for next Friday, February 15th.
Experts say the fast approaching 2012 DA14 asteroid is the biggest object to pass so close to the Earth since regular asteroid surveys began. It was first spotted in February last year by La Sagra astronomical observatory in the mountains of neighbouring Andalusia.
An intriguing fact that seems to have gone unreported by the mainstream media is that this observatory is very modestly equipped and unoccupied except for a single caretaker or maintenance man. It is controlled remotely by people located elsewhere in Spain – and in Hong Kong!
What has certainly not gone unreported is that an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. More than 60 million years on, however, we hominids can relax and continue our strange ways as if nothing unusual is happening.
This latest asteroid will bypass us with no ill effects whatsoever. Indeed, most of us would have been totally unaware of anything special in prospect had it not been for the media who do love to ratchet up the fear factor at every opportunity.
The normally conservative Daily Telegraph has informed us that “the 130,000 tonne space rock will miss Earth so narrowly that it will come within the orbit of some communication satellites, travelling at a speed of five miles per second – eight times the speed of a bullet from a rifle.”
Trust the Daily Mail to point out that if 2012 DA14 did hit the Earth – which it won’t – it could wipe out a city the size of Greater London.
Just in case bankers and businessmen were getting a little too complacent, the Wall Street Journal has noted that “if there were an impact, energy generated from 2012 DA14 would be an estimated 120 times greater than that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.”
Many newspapers and TV networks have relayed the words of Donald Yeomans, manager of the near-Earth object office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. He told a press conference: “This asteroid seems to be passing the sweet spot between the GPS satellites and weather and communications satellites.”
It only seems to be passing the sweet spot?
Apart from the very remote possibility that viewers may find their favourite Sky TV programmes rudely interrupted, none us will notice anything different at all. No sudden gust of wind, no bang in the night, not even a pinprick of sinister light visible to the naked eye. Just business as usual as the rock sweeps by on its way to heaven knows where.
Actually, at 45 metres across, this is quite a small rock by celestial standards, and there have been plenty of them during the Earth’s four-and-a-half billion-year history.
According to Time magazine: “The fact is, there are a whole lot more of them than you likely know: from Feb. 5 to May 5 of this year, no fewer than 77 space rocks that could, in theory have Earth’s name on them, will be whizzing by. On March 20 alone, when you may have been planning to celebrate the first day of spring, there will be seven.”
Meanwhile, to ensure harmony, for goodness sake don’t forget that the big day to celebrate close encounters is not Friday 15th, but Thursday 14th - Valentine’s Day!