30 March 2008

Strange matters

This is another one for the Six Degrees of Separation file. I was reading an (actually quite disturbing) article on the nytimes.com site, and noticed something in the "Most Popular" sidebar entitled Asking a Judge to Save the World, and Maybe a Whole Lot More. Being somewhat interested in the whole world-saving business (though less so in courts and judges), I clicked through.

The article concerns a scientific instrument called the Large Hadron Collider, operated by the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire outside Geneva. The LHC, which is in the final stages of being cooled to within a few degrees of absolute zero, is the largest particle accelerator (or, if you will, "atom smasher") ever built. I did a research fellowship at Caltech in 2004 with Harvey Newman's group, working on ways of managing the massive amounts of data (terabit scale) pouring out of an instrument, called the Compact Muon Solenoid detector, to be installed at the LHC. Yeah yeah yeah I know, this is deeply geeky, but some incredible science work is about to be done in Europe that may change forever the way we perceive the universe.

However, there is a court challenge in America -- and isn't it always the Americans with their court challenges? ;-) -- that is attempting to stop the experiment from going forward. William L. Wagner, a colourful individual who, among other things, founded a "World Botanical Gardens" that blocked one of my favourite mountain biking trails near my old home in Hakalau, Hawai'i, is now trying to block this experiment as well.

Basically, Wagner (who was a nuclear safety engineer before he began soaking that Umauma hillside with glyphosate, though his doctorate is in biology) fears that the high energies produced by the LHC may cause "mini black holes" to be formed, or micromicroscopic bits of strange matter called strangelets. The danger of these little bits is presented as a sort of ice-nine scenario, where the strangelet creates a chain reaction that turns every nucleus of every atom of normal matter on earth into strange matter. Freaky stuff.

Fortunately, this has been extensively studied already, and given the difficulty of proving a negative, scientists believe the possibility of this happening to be very very minute. Wagner brought a similar lawsuit to stop the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider from being commissioned. He was unsuccessful, and astute readers may have noticed that the Earth did not turn into "a hot, large lump of strange matter" when the RHIC came online back in 2000.

Wagner's story gets more amusing the more you look into it. He has appeared on the tinfoil-hat radio show Coast to Coast to talk about some of his "scientific discoveries". And he and his wife were indicted last month by a grand jury on counts of identity theft and attempted theft relating to an alleged attempt to obtain $340,000 from the botanical garden he started on that chunk of sugarcane land in Hawai'i.

Wagner says that he and his wife were owed the money, since they worked for free at the gardens for years. But after the board fired them both, they then sued the company for back pay. But the company says the pair failed to notify the directors of the action, with Wagner instead serving the papers on his own wife as company treasurer - even though she no longer was. The board says that Wagner - hilariously - then appeared in court as a company officer. He was thus able to gain a default judgment in his own lawsuit's favour, all without the knowledge of the board.

He lost the suit, and his appeal was rejected just this month. I have many years of built-up dislike for the dude, but I must admit that, having read this, I'd like to meet this guy once. This is world-class chutzpah we're talkin' here... the guy would definitely be worth a laugh.

Anyway, I was struck by the confluence of my old neighbor and my old research project, as I'm preparing my life for another radical change. Maybe we're all going to turn into strangelets come August. All the more reason to live life to the fullest..

05 March 2008

Roberto Saviano meets Donnie Brasco

I've talked before about my hero worship for Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, who risked his life to write about the Mafia, and is on the run forever as a result.

L'espresso published (in Italian) an interview conducted by Saviano with Joe Pistone. This ex-FBI agent is better known by the name under which he infiltrated the New York Mafia over a period of six years: Donnie Brasco. Immortalized in film by actor Johnny Depp, Pistone's infiltration led to 200 indictments and over 100 convictions of mobsters. Dude is, to put it briefly, also a hero of mine.

When my two heroes met, in the pages of L'espresso, I rushed to pay the ridiculously inflated price at the fancy newsstore in La Jolla where they sell foreign magazines. Because Saviano often uses unusual words, I had to read the article with my fat Rizzoli Larousse on my lap. At a given point, I realised it would be a perfect translation project. Little did I realise what an all-encompassing task it would become.

Several evenings of obsessive work later, My First Big Translation is complete, and submitted here humbly or your approval...

Saviano & Donnie Brasco
by Roberto Saviano

Break the relationship between clans and politicians. Destroy the appeal of the bosses. And fight the Italy-USA Mafia axis. This is the strategy by which the FBI has neutralized American mob families. It is explained by Joe Pistone, the secret agent immortalized by a great film. Interview with Joe Pistone alias Donnie Brasco

Better to meet where there are other people, we'll draw less attention... Joe Pistone is not very relaxed when he's in Italy, he looks at the faces around him, keeps a low tone of voice, is in a state of alarm, but he handles himself calmly. Nothing new in his life. I wait outside the restaurant. Joe does not see me. Joe Pistone is a sort of living icon, a walking agglomeration of legends, and I am quite worried. In anxiety to be before his talent. A tragic, complex talent.

What remains for me the mystery of Joe Pistone is his ability to blend, to transform, to believe in his own performance. Or rather: to divide his life into watertight compartments to the point of bringing out the worst of himself not as something external, but as a facet of his being. A few minutes pass, and I decide to go in. Joe is in a corner. Back to the wall. He is sitting at the table, eating olives and spitting the pits out into his hand. I was waiting outside the restaurant and he was inside a while. "It would have been better to wait sitting down in here, rather than standing outside - unless you want to be a target." With me is Stephen Pitrelli, who records everything and helps us translate. He is also worried about the meeting. But we pretend to be only interested in understanding better what Joe tells us. Stefano is dressed up. Me, like always. Pistone greets me and gives me a look: "It must be difficult for an Italian to dress as badly as you." Joe Pistone is Donnie Brasco, the character that became famous through the film by Mike Newell. In reality, for many years that name was a closely held secret. A name known only among affiliates of the Bonanno family, and especially by the FBI. And at the FBI, only a small group knew that Donnie Brasco was the name of the agent infiltrated for six long years in the most powerful Mafia family in New York.

Joe seems the opposite of Johnny Depp. There was, perhaps, more similarity between Al Pacino and Lefty, the mafioso who brought Donnie into the mob believing him to be a dealer in precious stones. But Joe is clear: "The film is a film, my life is my life." He starts to talk about it. "You know," says Joe, "in New York, the Mafia had great power in the construction sector and in the field of waste management; they virtually monopolized these two markets. They were able to do it through the control of transportation, of the trade unions and through the relationship with politicians. Now – after getting hit hard by the police – they just aren't there anymore, or they're not so strong. Now, everything has changed. The younger generation wants everything immediately. They do it with drugs, so they can make money fast, right? My generation, when I was infiltrated, there was drugs, of course, but they were controlled by the bosses. The rule was: no drugs in the neighborhood. Sell in Harlem, to the blacks. Or rich kids, New York pussies. But nothing in our neighborhood. To the younger generation it doesn't matter, because they want the money now, immediately. They are also using drugs - in the old days it would have been unthinkable for the boss of a Mafia family and his closest collaborators to be doing coke. For all these reasons, there is great friction between the old and new generations, a sort of generational conflict. The new gangs have lost control over the trade unions, because the younger generation doesn't have the experience and diplomatic capacity to bribe politicians like their fathers did. It would take them too long. They live in the moment. Young people have no political capacity. Once they lost the trade unions they also lost control of the trade of the country. Once they lost control of trucking, which moves the trade, it was no longer possible to control prices. "

The strange thing for Joe Pistone is the great power that Italian cartels continue to have in Italy and the world. All of the mafias of the world are inspired by the logic, action, and investment of the Italian model, although in New York for years now Italians have delegated to Albanians, Nigerians - and especially Russians - control of the territory. Joe asked me to bring an American copy of Gomorrah and he turns the book trying to hide the cover; yet another gesture of caution. And then he asks me: "they will not recognize the American cover in Italy, right?"

When he spoke before the United States Senate to report on his investigation, Pistone said that the more the Mafia became Americanized, the more distant it became from Mafia mentality. The more the United States entered their veins, less reliable they became. "You know, in the United States the Bonanno family at some point called in a lot of guys from Sicily, as a way of being more safe. Boss Carmine 'Lilo' Galante basically imported the Sicilian Mafia to the United States. He had the foresight to understand the direction the Italian-American young people were taking, that they were losing their 'culture.' By the third generation they were definitely moving away from their roots. So he brought the Sicilian Mafiosi, the guys that were more loyal, directly to America. He knew that the Sicilian Mafiosi could go around America and kill at will, because if they were arrested, no one would know who they were. And they were more reliable: no drugs, no extravagance. Discipline and honor."

Joe, in the six years in which he was infiltrated, saw the entire organization chart of the clan structure. "Over time Sicilians became very powerful, so much so that today inside the Bonanno family there are two factions, Sicilian and American, and they are at odds with each other. The Americans are jealous of the Sicilians imported by Bonanno, and Sicilians think the Americans are too soft. Because Americans don't kill policemen or politicians, while those in Sicily had no such scruples. Eventually the boss Galante was killed. This led the Americans to form a close alliance with the Sicilians, who were promised positions of power within the Bonanno family."

Every so often while I'm talking with him, I forget it's the star Donnie Brasco in front of me. We let the talk about organized crime go. I say, "Joe, you know that in my neck of the woods there is a myth on both sides of the fence. Among carabinieri but also people from the Camorra. Donnie Brasco is Donnie Brasco because he has balls. The rest counts for nothing in their logic." Joe smiles and comments: "Forget about it!", The famous phrase of all movie gangsters that's continually repeated and that all kids from my hometown use, imitating Al Pacino and Johnny Depp. He translates it as 'che te lo dico a fare'. The Porsche is a great car, 'Forget about it!', the Yankees have a lousy hitter, 'Forget about it!', Alicia Keys has the most beautiful ass in the world, 'Forget about it!' An expression that confirms. Confirms everything and the opposite of everything.

I ask if Joe, when he was infiltrated, ever received orders to kill. He repeats, ironically, "forget about it". On several occasions he was sent to kill people, but says they always managed to escape. "I have been assigned the 'contracts'. And I had to say yes: you can not refuse, otherwise you got killed. Let me just tell you this: If it had been a choice between me and a mafioso, it would have been him. I would have killed him. But it is a situation which I have never been in. One day I was with other Mafiosi at the club where we hung out. I got a phone call and the person on the phone tells me that the man who I had to kill was at a certain address . The other guy told me: 'Okay, let's go do this guy.' I understood that I couldn't get out, because if we had gone there and I didn't kill the guy, I would have been whacked myself. Then I realized that he had to die. But when were getting ready to go, another phone call came, and it said that that information was fake. So we didn't go. But I knew that I had to keep in mind what I was willing to do to save my life. "

To keep in mind who he was. This was the most difficult thing. To keep it only in his mind, not in his chest, in his stomach. Inside he had to be Donnie Brasco, not Joe Pistone. Away from his family for six years, six years where if you confess to yourself who you really are, you commit errors, mistakes, inaccuracies, and you make yourself scrupulous, moral. The opposite of what you should be. Six years where you have to make tape recordings, remember faces and moods, understand what is happening and what will happen. Joe tries to do it with faith. A belief in fate - like saying we all die sooner or later, when it is my turn I can't do anything about it, but before that moment arrives, I will do everything to live. "Once, a guy challenged me: 'If you don't convince us you're really a jewel thief you'll end up wrapped in a carpet'. I had to save myself with words, without showing any anxiety, just saying: 'You want to blow me away, just try it, I'm right here'.

On another occasion, a guy accused me of having stolen money the clan made from drugs. To determine if it was true, they held meetings. If you panic in a situation like that, you lend up 'taking a trip', that is they take you outside the city and give you a bullet in the neck. So rather than move away to avoid taking the trip, I stayed in the neighborhood, just outside the door where they were meeting. Waiting for them to finish, without the slightest fear. That's it. There's not much else to do." I can't understand how you can pretend to not be afraid. You can pretend to smile, pretend to be cheerful, pretend to be a Mafioso, but I still can not imagine how to pretend to not feel fear. Do you feel it and dismiss it? It's impossible to understand, there are mechanisms that you can only live, or rather that you can only survive. If you are lucky. I just say "I admire your ability to this having two separate lives. In my opinion it was what let you save your soul. "Joe looks at me with an air of melancholy and just responds, "Thanks."

We start to eat, and so the tone is lower. The tape recorder fills with the sounds of cutlery scraping dishes, with the clinking of glasses for silly toasts we make on disparate things, "to life", "fuck the Mafia," "to Italy," "to the South". The initial anxiety and tension diminishes, and we even speak the name Donnie Brasco aloud without Joe doing more than glancing around the restaurant to see the reactions. None. We continue to talk in a normal tone. "In my country", I say, "being part of the Mafia means having sex appeal, and having almost a groupie following." Joe Pistone confirms the universality of such things. "In America it's the same. When you are in the Mafia and you go into a restaurant, they give you the best seats. Even when I go into a clothes store. (translator's note - this part I couldn't figure out: Le donne, quando sei un boss, te la danno sul braccio...". Usa sempre un'espressione che non conoscevo, 'on the arm', qualcosa di simile a 'te la danno sull'unghia'. ???

I question whether after years living in a certain way, even if it's difficult, if you can miss that kind of life can mancarti, but Joe is categorical: "No, I have never missed it. For me it was just a job. I was lucky to grow up in a neighborhood where the Italian mafia was everywhere, I was familiar with them, and they never fascinated me. I didn't think they were anything special. " In the film, the rapport between Depp and Pacino is based on a kind of nostalgia. Brasco knows that will lose the affection of Lefty: that, perhaps, as soon as he discovers that Brasco is an agent, Lefty will kill him. But it wasn't like that, in reality. "When you make a movie, the hero has to show his feelings. If the hero tells the police: 'Do whatever you want with this bastard, kill him. It doesn't matter to me', then the scriptwriters change the scene because the public won't like it. They wanted to give the impression that I was sorry for the people who ended up in jail or dead: they didn't want to give the impression that my character was heartless. But maybe when I became Donnie Brasco I really was heartless ".

I was born and raised in an area where many people dear to me ended up entangled in the Camorra, and I have never been able to keep them out of my affections and emotions because they chose different paths than I did. You can't always force your heart not to love someone because they do something you despise and hate with your brain. I ask him how he didn't feel this natural rapport for someone born in the same place, and was able to denounce people he loved deep down. Joe, however, is clear in saying that he never investigated people who were forced to enter into relationships with the Mafia but who were not affiliated: "You understand that. When I worked for the FBI, I was asked if I had information about people in my neighborhood, people I knew growing up. I said no, because we had lived together. At the end of the day, it's the same in southern Italy as it is in New York."

In six years undercover, Joe Pistone was only able to see his three daughters, who lived in New Jersey while he worked in Manhattan, once every six months. A huge deprivation. "When I returned and believed that I was still a father, scoprivo that I was not any more. That I was used to being a man without a family and that my family was no longer accustomed to me. But I was determined to act in the name of a better society, for a better country, I knew that in the end, my daughters would benefit from what I did. It was the only possible way to look at things. And my family understood. " Pistone did arrest almost 150 people affiliated with the Bonanno clan on him and there was a $500,000 price on his head that was never removed, ready to be delivered to anyone whoever did the pleasure of the Italian-American Mafia of Manhattan and eliminated him. At trials, from behind bars, killers of the clan - his former friends - made the sign of a gun with their hands, the index finger pointing at him and making the sound of a shot. I find the courage to repeat that I do not understand how you can really overcome fear. When I was assigned escorts, the police colonel Gaetano Maruccia told me, quoting Roosevelt: "The only thing to fear is fear itself". It was a way to encourage me to continue my work, to do so calmly and not to fall into the trap of clans to wear a constant anxiety that drives you away from yourself. "I agree fully," says Joe: "I have never really been afraid. If you were, they could read it in your face. I was always on alert, I always knew that if I made a mistake I could die. Fear makes you make mistakes. "

Of course, I tell myself, but afterwards? After the work undercover is finished? How do you live peacefully? You can't continue for decades not to be afraid of fear, can you? "The Mafia, we have evidence, sent people to every corner of the United States to bump me off. In the end it wasn't different from when I was infiltrated because in my mind I was doing the same thing. That I was right. Since I was right, there was no reason to be afraid. Because I was one of the good. And I stopped to think: What is the worst that can happen to you? You could get killed? I didn't se that as such a bad thing. "

Joe is basically a simple man. At peace with himself. He has always kept in mind that it was a job, that he was in the right and that would have done everything possible to do his work. He never considered himself either a hero or an bad guy. But his family, what had to happen to his family, was not as easily passed from his conscience. "That was the hardest time for my life. When the price on my head has been extended to my family, and my family had to get new identities and move elsewhere. Yes, I felt guilty, because it is not a normal life. Not ever. When you meet new people you can not have any conversation about your past, who you were, what you did. It's hard for the family. This situation has put more constraints on them than on me. Even more, because I know how to take care of myself. " I ask whether he has tried to hold on to his memories. "The first thing I did was to tell someone the story of my experiences, so that if anything had happened to me, there would have been a person able to tell the story. There was an FBI agent that I told everything to. He was my friend. I was also a friend of Judge Falcone. "

Then, it's Joe who's asking me questions. He says that hard to imagine an anti-Mafia battle with any hope of winning in Italy. We both realize that the Mafia we have today is even more powerful than the one he knew at the time when he was Donnie Brasco, when the American clans had their hooks in politicians and controlled the drug traffic, and also trucking, and the waste management and construction industries, all the rackets that have continued to grow and strengthen here. The Italian bosses own companies, many local bosses have college degrees, their profiles are very high. He is almost overwhelmed by the bourgeois ferocity of Italian organized crime. "You know, Americans Mafiosi are gangsters - they are considered gangsters and see themselves as such: they start on the path as common criminals, and then climb the steps of the organization. Only in the classic films do you see them acting like businessmen. They feel outside of normal society, a caste apart. Here, on the other hand, I know that there are doctors and lawyers who are part of the Mob."

Joe tried to dismantle the Mafia myth in his reports when he was Donnie Brasco. "In America most of the Mafiosi don't build villas and palaces. Their vanity focuses on clothes, cars, women. It was not difficult to break down the illusion, they're not like the Italian bosses who make legends. Only Gotti has done that in the USA. " Coming from Joe, it's impressive. I wonder to what extent the Italian-American Mafia was attackable also because it never tried to make their reality match a cinematic image, while ours has followed Hollywood, not only by building villas identical to those in the movies, but especially those wanting to realize dreams of greatness and power. And there is riuscita. It's not possible while discussing this does not speak of 'The Sopranos', the show that seems to have changed the course of the history of television and the mafia in the United States and in half of Europe.

"In America the Mafia is known only in larger cities, such as Chicago and Detroit, because the mafia activities are concentrated in industrialized areas. In other areas of the United States - as in the South - the Mafia has no influence is not, because there's no industry. Therefore we can say that the reason for the great success we have is that the people were fascinated by something that often did not know, and the chance to see on television the other side of 'good' Mafia family, as violent and corrupt, that no transmission had ever seen. I like The Sopranos, but even some Italian-Americans got mad about it. In the United States there are organisations that are created to protect the image of Americans of Italian descent. It may seem paradoxical, but in the United States it is very common that when someone meest you and they find out that you're Italian, you hear comments like 'oh, you must be in the mafia'. I can't stand that. "

I tell him a story that involves him: "Once a Neapolitan boss said that Joe Pistone became Donnie Brasco to make fools of the Bonanno because he didn't have the face of a Mafioso, but of a real man. On the other hand, his friends said, to make fun of me, that there was no hope for me, with the face that I have." Joe laughs: "I think that it's ironic if the bosses feel that they need these excuses to justify it. I fooled him and that's it. There are no excuses."

I fooled him and that's it. Not in his face, but in other ways which I notice more and more as the evening goes on, that he relaxes and Joe Pistone continues to fill the glass. Joe knows how to size up the people in front of him: he weighs them with a glance, he sees you in detail, it almost seems he can tell when the last time you cut your nails or if you carry pictures of saints in your wallet. He looks at me, he asks me about the dogtags I wear around my neck: "A paratrooper, right?". Then he wants to know: "How come you wear those three rings?" I try to explain that it is an old custom where I come from, one that I follow more for tradition than for belief. Three as in Father, Son and Holy Ghost. "Beautiful", he tells me. Even Joe also likes to wear symbolic jewelry. He shows me the Claddagh Ring, an Irish symbol of friendship and love, a ring that he shares with his wife. It's always the details that show how much better reality is than imagination and how much greater than Johnny Depp is this now elderly gentleman, hale and hearty with his pot belly. Like this symbol of the Celtic faith, something that has nothing to do with Donnie Brasco and with all the imagery Italian-American, chosen to symbolise the link with the woman who has remained close to him throughout their lives, despite everything.

Joe Pistone gets up. We are finished. He gives me a big hug, wrapping his arms around my shoulders, and then pulls out a camera. Stefano switches off the recorder, wipes the sweat from his face, and he too embraces Joe. Then, he takes the camera from Joe and has us pose for a picture. Piston and I seem like a couple of drunk tourists. Or like an uncle who came from America to find his nephew. We don't care anymore who is looking at us, we stand up in the dining room of the restaurant and begin to take flash pictures, horrible snapshots, but good enough to capture a moment too important for us to worry about the beauty of the images. A strange feeling, amused, calm. Joe puts on his hat and coat, and leaves. We hug, again and he tells me, looking straight into my eyes: "Keep it up, here in Italy, there is so much to be done, we are at the beginning." We will continue. It's a promise, Donnie... a promise, Joe.