Tag cloud, 1972

A curiously contemporary work from 1972 in the Italics exhibition curated by Francesco Bonami at Palazzo Grassi in Venice. It seems that designers of good-looking tag clouds such as Wordle haven’t really invented anything aesthetically new. The work, “Sì alla violenza operaia” (“Yes to workers’ violence”), is by artist Nanni Balestrini, 1972.

Sì alla violenza operaia, Nanni Balestrini, 1972

Our newest “sin tax” and our Ministry of Culture

Our country never ceases to amaze, really. Yesterday’s papers reported that a ministerial decree is setting up an extra 25% tax (retroactive on 2008 earnings) on profits from all “literary, theatrical and cinema works […] featuring images or scenes containing explicit and not simulated sexual acts between consenting adults.”

This starts out weirdly enough with the inclusion of literary works: if you are a comic artist writing a graphic novel, or a writer, are your characters capable of real intercourse, or are they just having simulated sexual acts?

Then there is the “consenting adults” clause: go figure the exception for depictions of rape (any educational purpose?), sex between minors, sex between adults and minors. I guess all these things have not been deemed worthy of an additional 25% tax.

And who decides whether a given sexual act is simulated or real? Details will be unveiled in a forthcoming decree by our Prime Minister, but it seems that our Minister of Culture, Sandro Bondi (picture), will get to define explicitly what works will be subject to the extra tax and what works are merely “simulating”. One wonders, with the state our cultural heritage is in, does this government department really have nothing better to do?

This “sin tax” is not a new idea; sources report that it had already been proposed a few years ago, as a tax on works containing pornography or promoting violence (of any kind, not just the sexual one). The “promoting violence” piece has been dropped; I guess sex is considered a luxury good, but you can still get a good deal on violence.

The tragedy of war rapes in Sudan: what can be done?

Sometimes your heart breaks. Your heart breaks from the pain and suffering in the world around you that seems close to ineradicable.

Consider this. The chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague recommended last July that a warrant be issued for the arrest of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He would be accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Torching and looting of towns and villages continue; five million Darfuris are either living in refugee camps or fully dependent on aid. Eleven humanitarian workers have been killed this year and 179 kidnapped (source: The Economist).

And this is where your heart breaks:

Already, NGOs on the ground in Darfur are suffering from a government backlash prompted by the ICC charges against Mr Bashir. Harassment by security officials has got much worse. The goons have spent days in NGO offices haranguing staff to hand over sensitive documents and computer files which, they suspect, could have been used as evidence against Mr Bashir. In particular, officials have been targeting projects that help women recover from sexual violence. The massive use of rape as a weapon in the army’s counter-insurgency war is a critical part of the ICC case. If a warrant is issued, the harassment will surely worsen to the point where many counselling projects will be shut down, as at least one has been already.

Rape is an act of war, and the Court seeks justice; but the act of seeking justice may leave rape victims even more helpless than they are now.

What can be done? What in the world can be done?

A letter from the President of Stanford University

Today I received an extraordinary message in my email inbox: “A Message from Stanford’s President”.

John Hennessy, President of Stanford University, has taken the initiative to write to the broader Stanford community, including students’ families and Stanford alumni, to acknowledge that Stanford too is impacted by the state of the financial markets, and explain the implications of the dramatic shift in the economic environment for the University.

Please read the letter (I believe President Hennessy won’t mind my sharing it with you). I was deeply moved as I read it. This is a man who felt that it was his responsibility to reach out and explain these things to us; and it is clear that he put a lot of thought into how to say them. The letter is clear, to the point, empathic, forward-thinking, and deeply human. It makes me trust his leadership. It makes me proud to be a Stanford alumna.

 Dear Alumni, Parents and Friends:

Many of you have contacted me over the past few months with questions about the recent shifts in the economy and how the University is affected. I would like to update you on our response to these challenges.

Financial Aid Commitments Still Secure
The questions came to me even before the academic year was under way, from parents moving their sons and daughters into their residences this past fall: Given the state of the economy, would the University be able to meet its commitments to financial aid? Would we be able to help in situations where decreased home equity might preclude a loan they were counting on to help pay tuition? How would we deal with job losses by a family member? Our response: We will stand by our commitments and, yes, we will reconsider the financial aid needs of any family negatively impacted by the economic downturn.

The questions continued through Reunion Homecoming Weekend as the Dow Jones average dropped approximately 25 percent further. How was the University’s endowment affected? What would this mean for financial aid, for operations and for the capital facilities projects already under way?

The Tightest Financial Outlook in Decades
Let’s start with the endowment. We weathered the period through early summer comparatively well, achieving an overall return of 6.2 percent for the year ending June 30, 2008. Since then, the endowment has declined steeply, although somewhat less precipitously than the market indices. In addition, sponsored research, our second largest revenue source, has been declining in real terms over the past several years, and given the challenges in the federal budget is unlikely to improve quickly. Tuition, our third major source of revenue, cannot be raised significantly out of fairness to our students and their families. All of these factors contribute to the tightest financial outlook we have seen in decades.

Fortunately, Stanford entered this period in a relatively healthy financial position, bolstered by several years of revenue increases, generous gifts from alumni, parents and friends, and remarkable growth in the endowment, which for the first time ever became the University’s largest source of revenue.

To manage our finances going forward, we anticipate reducing the $800 million general funds budget – which pays for most of our faculty and staff salaries, central administrative operations and non-research expenses – by 10 to 12 percent over the next few years. Declining federal research dollars could double the total revenue loss across the University. We cannot achieve these reductions without some significant and permanent cutbacks.

Cutting Costs Wisely
As we implement these budget cuts, we will do so with several principles in mind. First, we will focus on preserving the investments we have made in our faculty over the past decade. Likewise, we will maintain our commitment to both undergraduate and graduate students. The excellence of the University depends on its people, and we will do our best to maintain the quality of our faculty, staff and students as we make adjustments.

Second, we will review our capital projects. We are in the midst of a major capital program that includes some vital construction projects. Halting projects in mid-construction, even temporarily, would cost us more money in the long run. But not all our projects will be built according to the original schedule. We will reexamine projects that incur significant amounts of debt.

Third, through support from The Stanford Challenge we have launched a variety of efforts to address the most challenging problems facing humankind: sustaining our planet for future generations, enhancing peace and stability around the world, exploring the potential of stem cells for autoimmune diseases, improving K-12 education in the United States, and finding new ways to generate energy that will not increase greenhouse gases. These are critical initiatives, and while we must adapt our efforts to present circumstances, we will not shy away from our long-term responsibility to lead in finding solutions for these problems.

Trust in Our Stanford Community
We know we are not alone in dealing with this financial shockwave; some of you will experience situations far more difficult than we see on our campus. My sincere wish is that those whose lives have been disrupted will find firmer footing in coming months. In any crisis, we look to the people and places whose connections sustain and strengthen us. I hope that your place in the Stanford community provides such nourishment for you.

As always, I am happy to hear from you. Send your comment, suggestion or question to me at president@stanford.edu or to Howard E. Wolf, ’80, vice president for alumni affairs and president of Stanford Alumni Association, at alumnipresident@stanford.edu.


John L. Hennessy

Italy and the 2008 Gender Gap Report: real or apparent progress?

Last year I commented on Italy’s deservedly low position in the rankings of relative gender equality produced by the World Economic Forum. This year, the 2008 Gender Gap Report tells us that we are no longer in position number 84: we have jumped up to number 67. We are still quite far from other European and mostly Catholic countries such as Poland (49), Spain (17), France (15) and Ireland (8).

This year’s data on Italy, states the report,

show very significant improvement in the percentage of women among legislators, senior officials and managers, members of parliament and in ministerial level positions.

One would have to look beyond the raw numbers to get a sense of the real impact of those ministerial level positions, I would guess; but we’ll leave that to the next refinement of the ranking metodology.

It is also true that we have more businesswomen in position of power this year; yet, we have no way to know where Marina Berlusconi (who recently joined the board of Mediobanca) and Emma Marcegaglia (who became head of Confindustria, and is the only Italian in the Wall Street Journal’s “50 Women to Watch“) would be today if it weren’t for their fathers’ success.

And hopefully those women legislators and members of parliament will think about crafting and passing some of those laws that the rest of us need before we can feel that Italy offers true equality of opportunity, regardless of gender.

Being a student again

I loved being a student, and I love to go back and be a student again every now and then, even if it’s only for a week.

In 2005, I attendend the gut-wrenchingly good Stanford lifelong learning seminar called Interpersonal Dynamics for High Performance Leaders. Next week, with equally high expectations, I am off to “Customer-Focused Innovation“.  Read about it here, here and here in Prof. Sutton‘s blog.

Plus, it’s always good to be back in California.

Over the edge

Four weeks ago, our world was on the edge. Since then, optimists have been denying the presumed contagion from Wall Street to Main Street; pointing out that many great companies, after all, were born in a depression; and generally poking fun at the doomsayers.

It is true that we’re not hoarding potatoes in our cellars, stocking up on candles, queuing up outside food stores with black-market ration cards, and other symptoms of a wartime economy. Yes, homeless shelters and soup kitchens do have more patrons. But we, the rest of us, most of us really, haven’t entirely stopped brushing our teeth in the morning, going to work, dining out, watching a movie now and then, and generally going about our lives.

Yet, try reassuring the poor souls at Volvo’s heavy trucks division. As reported by The Economist:

Volvo wins the prize for statistic of the crunch to date. The Swedish firm said it had received a mere 115 orders for heavy trucks in Europe in the third quarter, down by 99.7% on the 41,970 order bookings during the same period of 2007.

It may be temporary, and it may be reversible: yet, if this isn’t called, at least for one industry and one company, “falling off a cliff”, I don’t know what is.