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Spain through the looking glass

Archive for November 2012

Science spending dries up

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Spain’s peak scientific research body, the CSIC, has announced spending cuts of €130 million dollars over the next three years as it fights to deal with funding shortfalls.

Speaking to Europapress yesterday, Emilio Lora-Tomayo, the head of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), said the cuts were necessary to ensure the institution was self-sustainable into the future.

The science chief said the body planned to save €50 million next year and then make up the other €100 million of its €147-million deficit by stimulating interest among businesses in funding for projects. He also touted plans to raise revenue by increasing sales of patents and books.

In what could be taken as a sign of desperation, Lora-Tomayo also called on the nearly 130 centres affiliated with the research agency to brainstorm ideas to raise some much-needed cash.

The CSIC has already stopped hiring new researchers as well as shutting down its key JAE (Junta para la Ampliación de Estudios) training programme as it struggles to deal with dwindling funds.

Described by La Vanguardia as ‘a giant with feet of clay’ and ‘a dinosaur after the asteroid’, the important research organisation has seen funding inflows plummet by almost a third since 2009.

There are 125 CSIC centres around Spain and the agency has 14,000 staff on its books. It is responsible for some 20 per cent of scientific activity undertaken in the country.

Spending on technological innovation in Spain fell 8.8 per cent last year, according to a report released this week by the the country’s stats office, the INE.

Written by georgemills25

November 30, 2012 at 12:25

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Climate change threatens black truffles

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Black truffles threatened by climate change

Climate change looks set to claim another victim. After threatening to drown entire islands and swallow up the coastal regions of various continents, it seems that our cheeky old friend the climate now has Périgord black truffles in its sights.

Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) are among the world’s most exclusive delicacies and can fetch up to €2,000 a kilogram. In the 1960s, crop yields were still around 200–300 tonnes a year, but this has fallen to around 25 tonnes annually in recent times.

Now scientists are saying that hotter summers and more frequent droughts have caused these paltry harvests in the Mediterranean heartlands of truffle production.

In a letter to the journal Nature Climate Change, investigators said black truffle harvests in key zones in Spain, France and Italy have been shrinking since a peak in 1978 despite ramped up efforts at cultivation.

In their letter, the Swiss-led international team said they had compared truffle harvests with weather patterns in the key production areas of Aragon in north-eastern Spain, Périgord in southern France and Piedmont and Umbria in northern Italy. They found that Spanish and French yields had fallen at a similar rate since the 1978 crop because of drier summers in that period. Yields in northern Italy were less affected because of higher rainfall in the two Italian areas studied.

Cooler and wetter summers are the best conditions for Périgord black truffles while warm, dry summers mean less fruiting and lower productivity in Mediterranean forest ecosystems. This is a particular problem for truffles because they depend on their host trees, the oak and hazelnut, for growth.

The scientific team, which included Jesús Julio Camarero from Spain’s Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología, is gloomy about prospects for the black truffle, with Camarero saying this century was expected to bring hotter summers and increased evapotranspiration.

It’s not all bad news for truffle lovers though. The same weather patterns that are biting into black truffle harvests across the Mediterranean basin could see forests north of the Alps becoming top breeding grounds for both natural and cultivated truffles.

There is recent evidence of a general increase in fungi in Switzerland while Burgundy truffles (Tuber aestivum) have taken off in southern Germany.

(Picture credit: Ulrich Stobbe, Freiburg i.Br.)

Written by georgemills25

November 30, 2012 at 10:24

How Salvador Dali conned Yoko Ono out of $10,000

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The Spanish painter Salvador Dali once conned the Japanese artist and musician Yoko Ono into paying $10,000 for a fake hair from his moustache, says Dali’s one-time muse and lover Amanda Lear.

“Throughout his life, Dali could never resist it when someone waved a cheque under his nose,” the singer and actress Lear told French magazine VSD in an article published this week.

Speaking about the painter whose work is the subject of a major new retrospective at Paris’ Centre Georges Pompidou, the French chanteuse said Dali almost sold John Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono a real hair. But he thought Yoko Ono was a witch and that she might cast a spell on him.

“He sent me out into the garden to get a blade of dried grass and I put it in a pretty little box,” Lear said, explaining how Ono had been conned.

“The nitwit paid $10,000,” Lear said. “Dali loved swindling people.”

Lear met Dali in 1965 when she was 18 and the painter was 61.

Written by georgemills25

November 29, 2012 at 18:15

Iberia staff to strike in Christmas lead-up

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Staff at Spain’s national carrier Iberia will be striking in December to protest against airline plans to slash workforce numbers by around a quarter.

Unionised staff at the national carrier will walk off the job on the 14,17,18,19,20 and 21 of December to vent their anger at management plans to scrap 4,500 jobs and cut the salaries of remaining staff by as much as 35 per cent.

The unions say they have chosen the six days of their strike to minimise disruption to Christmas traffic and avoid busy weekend periods. Ground crew and cabin staff will be downing tool but pilots will clock on as usual during the rolling stoppages.

Iberia’s owner International Airlines Group announced a major revamp of the airline’s operations earlier this month in a bid to stop the profit rot. The company reported third quarter operating profits of €270 million this year, down from the €363 million notched up by the company in 2011.

The holding company – also owners of British Airways – said it now planned to stage a return to profits by cutting staff numbers and scaling down Iberia’s network capacity by 15 percent in 2013. They also plan to slim down their fleet by 25 planes and focus on the airline’s most profitable routes.

Responding today to news of the stop-work, Iberia chief executive Rafael Sánchez-Lozano told Europapress: ‘The strike at Iberia is like a hunger strike, if you win you die’. Clearly in combat mode, the airline boss also said he couldn’t see the advantage in a strike that would damage both the product and the brand.

Sánchez-Lozano added that Iberia would take a responsible attitude to talks with staff and was willing to listen to all options including ways to save on job losses ‘given that every person has a mortgage, or a school to pay’. He said, however, that the airline’s objective of return on equity of 12 per cent by 2015 was non-negotiable.

IAG have set a January 31 deadline for unions negotiations over planned changes at the carrier.

Written by georgemills25

November 29, 2012 at 14:02

Banks secure EC bailout

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The European Commission today agreed to a €37-billion bailout of four troubled Spanish banks but there are some serious strings attached.

The tough conditions imposed by the EU for the bailout mean the Banco de Valencia will soon cease to exist while Novagalicia Banco faces a sell-off within the next five years.

Meanwhile, the other two nationalised lenders – Bankia and Catalunya Caixa – will be forced to slash staff and branch numbers to meet strict cost-cutting requirements imposed by the EC.

In a move that Commission Vice-President in charge of competition policy Joaquín Almunia called “a milestone” in cooperation between the euro area countries and Spain, the EC has rubber stamped the restructuring plans of Spain’s four nationalised banks in Bankia, Catalunya Caixa, Novagalicia Banco and the Banco de Valencia.

In a press release earlier of today, the commission stated: ‘The in-depth restructuring undergone by BFA/Bankia, Catalunya Caixa and Novagalicia Banco will allow them to become viable in the long-term without continued state support. Moreover, the banks and their stakeholders [will] adequately contribute to the costs of restructuring.’

But the same press release also handed a death sentence to Banco de Valencia with the commission saying the viability of that institution ‘could not be restored on a standalone basis’. According to plans drawn up by Spain’s Fund for Orderly Bank Restructuring (or FROB) – the legal body charged with overseeing the overhaul of Spain’s banking sector – the bank will now receive €4.5 billion in funding before being sold onto giant CaixaBank for the less than princely sum of €1.

The EC deal also means the eventual sale of Novagalicia Banco with Spain committed to a sell-off of the institution by the end of the five-year restructuring period.

And while both Bankia and Catalunya Caixa have been handed stays of execution, they face a tough road ahead. The EC has given the lenders until 2017 to slash their balance sheets ‘by more than 60 per cent’ compared to 2010 levels. The banks will also have to stay well away from real estate lending and refocus their lending activities towards retail banking and loans to SMEs.

Under EC rules, the banks will also have to shed various industrial equity stakes and subsidiaries to limit a future need for aid. Bankia and Catalunya Banc will also have to wave goodbye to trading and treasury portfolio of fixed-income securities.

In Spain, the aftershocks of the announcement were felt almost immediately with Bankia quickly announcing dramatic plans to lay off 28 per cent of its workforce through the slashing of 6,000 jobs. The bank will also turn off the lights for the last time in over 1,000 offices as it rushes to meet EC requirements.

It was the failure of Bankia last May that initially led to Madrid to enter into negotiations with the EC for a €100 billion bank bailout.

The funds for the bank bailout will come from the eurozone’s European Stability Mechanism.

Written by georgemills25

November 28, 2012 at 16:03

Solidarity starts at home

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A Spanish couple are taking solidarity with their crisis-hit compatriots to a whole new level.

The couple from Bilbao have decided to offer up a two-bedroom attic flat in the northern Spanish coastal town of Gijón for free to the homeless family that needs it most. They have set just two conditions: the arrangement is to last only one year and the people who take over the apartment must be able to demonstrate that they are homeless because of the crisis.

‘We could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening with the mortgage foreclosures,’ the family explained to Spain’s 20 Minutos newspaper.

The family’s decision to give up the flat came after a lot of debate around the kitchen table about the evictions taking place in Spain. Eventually, they decided to place an advertisement in La Nueva España offering up the flat at no charge.

They are giving up the furnished apartment – which is mainly used for holidays and stands empty most of the year – for a maximum of one year, a move which is designed to set clear limits and make clear that this isn’t a lifetime arrangement.

‘We don’t have any secret motive,’ family member Isabel told the newspaper 20 Minutos. ‘It’s a simple gesture from one family to another.’

Isabel is a civil servant and lawyer, and her husband a top business executive. Isabel explained to 20 Minutos that they were lucky enough to find themselves in a good economic position.

The family have received 800 calls since they placed their advertisement. They are now working through a list of candidates and interviews will be conducted this weekend. Isabel said preference would be given to families with children and people with disabilities.

‘We are acting responsibility and will take as long as we need to find the right family,’ said Isabel.

An estimated 400,000 people have been made homeless because of mortgage foreclosures since the beginning of the crisis in Spain.

If you can think of any other ways to help Spain’s crisis-hit families, leave a comment below.

Written by georgemills25

November 28, 2012 at 09:24

Scorpion bites airline passenger

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In the brave, almost-new world of cyberspace it’s comforting to know that companies are tracking our every mouse click so as to be better able to sell us the products we all know and love so much.

Sometimes, though, this targeted marketing strategy crashes and burns as was the case with easyJet’s recent attempt (web capture below) to sell me tickets while I was reading the story of a woman who had been stung by a scorpion on a long-haul flight (backstory follows).

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So here’s the background: a couple of months ago, I jumped onto to easyJet’s website to check the prices of return flights between Madrid’s Barajas airport and Basel in Switzerland. Since then, the low-cost carrier’s friendly little orange ads have appeared on every webpage I visit that contains even a sniff of a reference to either Madrid Barajas airport or airline travel.

Unfortunately, this time easyJet didn’t quite hit the mark. The picture above tells the sorry tale of a Swiss woman who, a few days back, was bitten by a scorpion while flying Spain’s national carrier, Iberia, between Costa Rica and Madrid. She was subsequently rushed to hospital where she remained under observation overnight.

All this was a red flag for easyJet. The flood of relevant terms on the page I’d opened (Madrid! Airport! Airbus! Swiss woman! Iberia!) must have lit up their control panels like a landing strip. The presence of a scorpion on the page was immaterial to the logarithmic masters in orange. It was patently clear: this man wants to book a fly with us!

Still want to fly from Basel to Madrid Mr Mills? Hmm, I think I might pass for now if that’s OK.

Written by georgemills25

November 27, 2012 at 09:14