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7.31.2011

Twitter vs.Facebook, with Google+ the winner?

Google Appliance as shown at RSA Expo 2008 in ...Image via Wikipedia

Will Google+ be the winner a year from now? Chances are good. But of course, it's too soon to tell.

It's a very fluid, fast-changing situation. Millions have already joined Google+ before it even went public (you could get in only with an invitation). Reportedly some 20 millions, and that's just in one month! Plus some very authoritative tech-savvy people (see the NYT article below) are already comparing Google+ with the rest of 'em and declaring Google+ the winner!

Because of the way it handles privacy rights: you put people in "circles" that determine who sees what. So, you're safe at last from that kitty picture-loving friend who hounded you down on your Facebook Page and filled your wall with nonsense. A definite advantage.



And Google+ is ahead of both Facebook and Twitter on other neat techie things like group chatting (called Huddles) and a button to share anything with everyone in your circles (called Sparks - I haven't used it yet but it sounds like it's easier to use than Stumble).

But let's stick to the here and now:  Facebook has some 750 million users and Twitter over 200 millions. Compared to them, Google+ is still in its infancy.

So which is better,Twitter or Facebook?

facebookImage by sitmonkeysupreme via Flickr

Many people on Internet swear by Facebook, and there's even some (slight) evidence that Facebook sends you more "faithful" readers, i.e. return visitors than most other sites, Google included. That is: people who are more likely to comment, and we all love that, don't we? I know I do!

So is Facebook the royal road to getting return visitors who comment?

Not quite. Let's face it, if your aim is to get as many comments to your blog as you can, then there's nothing like writing your articles for a regular "traditional" newspaper.

Just to put things in perspective: The other day, I commented on one of Krugman's excellent articles (he publishes regularly on the NYT). I thought I was one of the first to comment, but no, I wasn't. The NYT doesn't give you the whole list, and small wonder: I discovered I was number 284, and the whole list of people who commented extended well beyond 400 and kept growing...

Oh well, a rather humbling experience for us poor bloggers...

If Facebook doesn't bring us masses of readers who comment, is Twitter any better?
Follow me on Twitter logoImage via Wikipedia

Actually Twitter is able to show impressive stats. Passive Guy in a recent post in which he analyzed his own Twitter stats, showed how his following of over 4000 people translated into over 70,000 people reading one of his tweets, simply because it was re-tweeted.

There is this almost instantaneous multiplying effect you simply don't have on Facebook. And I'm not sure that will ever exist on Google+, but with it's Spark feature, it might just yet, who knows...

What is your take? Which do you prefer, Twitter or Facebook? Which one do you find brings more traffic toyour blog?
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7.30.2011

Three SimpleTricks to Increase Traffic to Your Blog

A ballroom dancing couple. Illustration by Dav...Image via Wikipedia
Are you suffering from a case of "flat traffic"?

There's tons of advice around Internet on how to increase traffic to your site, and for us writers, one of the best and most recent posts on the subject is Scott Berkun's: click here to read. I've also listed some interesting related articles below for your use.

But, wow, so much work!

Isn't there a simpler way to do it? I mean, like fundamental things that you shouldn't miss out on and that really, really work?

I've tried to understand the problem and after looking around Internet for some time, here's what I found. But before identifying possible tricks, let's get our figures straight so we know what we're talking about.

We are NOT talking about the number of "hits"on your site per day. A "hit" is just a person that happens on your blog and decides that's the wrong place to be and leaves immediately, without reading anything beyond the first few words (if that). So you might get 1,000 or 10,000 hits a day, but your number of posts actually read is much, much lower: it can be four or five times as little - it can even be 3 or 4 percent of the total!

This however does tell you something fundamental: a "hit" is a knock on the door.

To get a lot of people knocking on your door, what do you have to do?

TRICK No. 1:  KEYWORDS! Okay, I'll admit it, this is a no brainer. We all know keywords are the name of the game in Google searches and if you look up the traffic sources on your blog stats, you'll most probably find that Twitter or Facebook may well bring you tons of readers, but Google out does them all!

So how does Google find you? Are there tricks beyond picking out the "best", most "sought after", most "used" keywords (and using links to well-traficked sites)?

Or to put it another way, how does Google rank your site and how can you get your ranking improved? Again, there's a ton of advice on this and there are even different page ranking systems (see the useful  authopublisher article below). But for a dumb writer like myself, one of the best sites with the clearest explanations is Ana Hofman's Traffic Generation Café. She is very focused on this subject and super savvy about it. She recently delved into the question of what makes for improved page ranking with Google:

Here’s where the answer to the question of “Why is my site not ranking as highly?” might lie.
It only makes sense that a document that mentions both “ballroom” and “dancing” next to each other will be deemed more relevant than the one that talks about square dancing and simply mentions the word “ballroom” somewhere else on the page.
Similarly, if the entire “ballroom dancing” phrase is mentioned in the title of the page, it will appear to be more relevant to the topic.
In the same way, if the phrase is mentioned several times throughout the page, the page is more likely to be about ballroom dancing than if the phrase appears only once.
Check out this great quote I found at Google’s Librarian Central:
As a rule, Google tries to find pages that are both reputable and relevant.
If two pages appear to have roughly the same amount of information matching a given query, we’ll usually try to pick the page that more trusted websites have chosen to link to.
Still, we’ll often elevate a page with fewer links or lower PageRank if other signals suggest that the page is more relevant.
For example, a web page dedicated entirely to the civil war is often more useful than an article that mentions the civil war in passing, even if the article is part of a reputable site such as Time.com.
What do I take away from all this? Relevance is key. As Ana Hofmann puts it: 

Yes, it might come down to how well you optimize the page itself that will determine whether and how highly it’ll show up in Google search results.
Things like title, tags, description, on-page keywords.
Okay, in my simplified vocabulary, that means I have to make sure that: keywords are in my title, that they turn up in my text and that all corresponding tags are listed!
And of course, that brings us to: 


TRICK no. 2: CONTENT! We all know that our blog has to be useful to the reader. That's why J.A.Konrath's blog is so successful: he is giving priceless, free advice to would-be writers trying to figure out how to self-publish. A huge market, and no wonder he's got 500,000 followers! 


He found a niche and exploited it. 


So you have to find your niche and exploit it.


TRICK no. 3: ENJOY YOUR NICHE! Yes, I bet you didn't expect me to say that! But I mean it. Your content is going to be fun to read, enticing, interesting etc ONLY if you enjoy writing it! Yes, pick something you're familiar with (so you have something interesting to say) but also something you feel passionate about! Otherwise your blog is going to be...well, maybe well-written and all that, but oh, so boring!

So have fun and watch the bored masses rush to you to have a good laugh with you!

Do you have any other good advice ? I'd love to hear it!


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7.26.2011

How to Start Your Novel with a Splash

Splash in a DropImage by Chaval Brasil via Flickr
The hardest part of writing a novel is... the beginning! I don't know about you, but for me, it is something I do and redo and I'm rarely satisfied with it. You know your book has to start with a splash - that's what literary agents and publishers expect, that's what readers want - you just know you've got to do it, but God, it is hard!

Recently Passive Guy had a wonderful post about it where he quoted the openings of current romance bestsellers. Here's his pick:

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups
~
In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.
Norman McLean, A River Runs Through It
~
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
William Gibson, Neuromancer
~
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
~
Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting V under the more flexible V of his mouth. His nostrils curved back to make another, smaller V. His yellow-grey eyes were horizontal. The V motif was picked up again by thickish brows rising outward from twin creases above a hooked nose, and his pale brown hair grew down–from high flat temples–in a point on his forehead. He looked rather pleasantly like a blond satan.
He said to Effie Perine: “Yes, sweetheart?”
Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon

A nice selection, right? Which one do you like best?

The reactions to Passive Guy's post were also very interesting. One noted that the first paragraph is no guarantee that the rest of the book is good - she always downloads a sample on her Kindle (that's definitely easier than reading the first 20 pages in a bookstore - no doubt another reason why e-books are such a success).

Several others noted how the last paragraph is more important than the first in the decision to buy (and here is where a physical bookstore has an advantage over online libraries: Amazon doesn't allow you to download the end of a book as a sample).

One (called Zelah) was very vocal about his reading the ending first:
"Yes, the ending. This is because knowing what happens in the end won’t spoil the story for me – but the story WILL be spoilt for me if I read it and get to the end of the book only to find an un-hinted at tragedy, or that it has one of those hugely annoying non-endings where they leave it up to the reader to decide what happens next.
I don’t trust an unknown author to deliver what I want from a book, so I check that they will before I buy.
I will say though that free Kindle books have got me reading new authors and (since I can’t check the end) I’ve been downloading and reading them based on blurb and reviews. I’ve found that it’s the story that keeps me reading. I can generally put up with bad style, even if I don’t like it – but I can’t put up with a poor or boring story."
Fascinating, isn't it? So if you want to reach out to your readers, focus on composing great "blurbs" and getting as many reviews as you can...

As to openings?  Should you forget about them? Hardly. A great writer is always able to produce an arresting opening. As I commented in Passive Guy's post, no one can beat the classics. Take for example Dickens "A Christmas Carol"

“Marley was dead to begin with.There is no doubt whatever about that.The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it.And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
It's tersely written: short, clipped sentences. No long-winded stuff. And Scrooge, the main character is introduced right in the first paragraph. 


That's how to do it! It hits you in the stomach. 
Who can beat that?
Don't you want to become a classic author after you're dead? If you do, work on a splashy beginning!


7.24.2011

Amy Winehouse is Dead at 27, like Janice Joplin

Amy Winehouse at Eurockéennes de Belfort (Fest...Amy Winehouse in 2007 at Eurockéennes Festival Image via Wikipedia
Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home by the police, yesterday afternoon, 23 July. She was only 27 - just like Janice Joplin who died at the same age...in 1970. Forty years separate them, yet they share the same sort of amazing trajectory in their career and life:  huge success and a desperate addition to drugs and alcohol. Both were known for striking vocals and a love for soul and jazz.

There the similarities end. Janice was born in Texas in a middle class white American family: her mother worked in a college, her father was an engineer at Texaco. Amy was born in London, the daughter of a taxi driver of Russian origin and an English pharmacist. In both the girls' families, music had an important place but while Janice wavered between painting and singing, finally becoming famous with her break through hit A piece of my heart only two years before her death, Amy was an instant success at twenty with her debut album Frank, followed three years later by her 5 Grammy award-winning album Back to Black. Perhaps her single biggest hit was Rehab, singing her refusal to go through rehab and renounce drugs.

In that refusal to give up drugs and rebellion, in their love for soul music, in their incredibly beautiful voices that express the whole range of human emotions, Amy and Janice are twin souls. Every time I hear Amy sing Will you still love me tomorrow, a 1960s hit by the Shirelles, I think of Janice.

Good-bye Amy, I'm going to miss you just as I miss Janice...

 Janis Joplin
    


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7.23.2011

The Summer of our Debt Discontent

G-20 heads of governmentG20 Heads of GovernmentImage by DonkeyHotey via Flickr
The United States struggles with removing a debt ceiling by 2 August while Europe struggles to bail out Greece and save the Euro.

What if both efforts failed?

What if rating agencies downgraded the US debt and extended the downgrading already started by Fitch on Greece's debt to the rest of the ailing European economies, Portugal, Ireland and especially the big ones, Spain and Italy?

A nightmare scenario?

This couldn't be a worse summer, with the two events coming together in time.

How likely is it that this will cause a cataclysmic collapse of the world economy?

I know, you expect me to say this is highly unlikely.

I wish I could say that.

But the truth is, we are saddled on both sides of the Atlantic with an irresponsible class of politicians who either don't understand the challenges they are facing or don't want to understand. All these guys think of is to satisfy their own electorate, people who perhaps voted them in but don't remotely grasp what is going on in the financial world.

German Chancellor Merkel is crucially responsible for the delay of the European response to the threat of a Greek default. From the start of the crisis a year and a half ago, all she was concerned with was how to protect the German taxpayers, in the hope of securing their votes. She never had any vision of Europe and the need to defend the Euro.

The much touted European leaders "debt summit" last week gave birth to a financial mouse. The summit never tackled the problems beyond Greece. Not a word about Portugal, Ireland and worse, Italy and Spain and (maybe) Belgium. My only consolation is that when the Euro collapses,  Germany will collapse too.

Big consolation!

And when the US Government closes down its doors because the debt ceiling will not have been lifted in time and it will no longer be able to refinance itself, then the dollar that has (in fact) underpinned the world economy will be gone.

Do you think that an urgent meeting of the G20 will save us, the way it did after the 2008 financial collapse? Of course not, that avenue is closed. The caricatures I posted here are, alas, uncomfortably close to the reality: these people as a group can't do a thing.

Will the Chinese save us? Fat chance ! Just now, they've run into problems of their own, and their economy is slowing down. True, the strength of the emerging economies, especially China, India and Brazil, was both remarkable and unexpected after the 2008 debacle. But don't kid yourself: the miracle can't be repeated.

So what will happen? I don't know. What's needed are politicians with the courage to take decisions their electorate back home might not understand but that would save the world economy - all of us.

Europeans should stop playing around with the Euro and realize that a common currency means common financial, fiscal and social policies. The Euro needs a federal Europe behind it, not just a Central Bank that is limited both by its mandate and by a narrow-minded, conservative president like Trichet.  The European Union has to become a reality fast, or the Euro will evaporate.

The logic of a common currency is incontrovertible.

The Euro needs what the dollar has: a Federal Reserve System that runs monetary policy but is also concerned with economic growth and a Treasury with full financial powers. Call it what you will, but what the Europeans have come up with so far, is definitely not it. The rescue fund they've set up - and it won't be fully functioning before 2013 (!) -  and the so-called "Marshall Plan" for Greece meant to boost its economy are both laughable.

On Monday the markets will decide how laughable all this is, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Euro plunged and interest on the Greek debt - but also, worryingly, on the Italian debt and Spanish debt - rose again. Sky-high.

Europe is not out of the woods.

And the United States is fast getting into the woods, unless the Republicans stop their Tea Party games and realize how their insistence on defending tax cuts for the wealthy and reducing social security entitlements for the middle classes is putting at risk the (once) almighty dollar.

Can you imagine a world economy without the Euro and the dollar?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we won't need to imagine, much less live in such a world!
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A Great Artist is Dead, Long Live Lucien Freud!

Francis Bacon - Three Studies for the Portrait...Portrait of Lucien Freud by Francis Bacon 1964 (Study III)Image by Cea. via Flickr
 Lucien Freud, the greatest 20th century artist after Picasso, the friend and arch-rival of Francis Bacon, died yesterday, age 88.  The greatest living artist of our times is no more.

To me, he was one of the greatest artists of all times. Now that he is gone, well, it's a shock. We all have to go of course, and he was an old man who had lived a very long, full and ultimately incredibly successful life.

Still, I am profoundly sad and feel it as a personal loss. I never met him, I only knew him through his paintings. But when someone like that goes, someone you admire and relate to because their incomparable art is there to establish the link between him and you-the-viewer, well, you feel it in the pit of your stomach.

Lucien Freud (superposed image of two frames)                        Lucien Freud                        Image via  Wikipedia
Lucien Freud was the grand-son of Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychology. And, true to his inheritance, his portraits are unforgettable and ruthless explorations into the human psyche.

When he portrayed Queen Elizabeth, there was a storm of protest. Indeed, if you look closely at that portrait, you will see the Queen's soul laid bare: this is no easy lady, this is a woman of power, used to wielding it without mercy. A strong woman, one who can survive any storm, as she has proved when Princess Diana died.

But he is perhaps better known in the public for his portrayal of human flesh. His nudes match the greatest nudes of the past, in terms of composition, drawing and handling of perspective. More importantly, he matched any of the past masters in the way he worked the flesh. He used his brush to plumb the depths of shades and texture of the human flesh. Especially female flesh. Oil painting has never been brought to greater heights.

And no wonder. When he started to paint sixty (or more) years ago, his paintings looked like they had been done in Van Eyck and Memling's time. He started his life with a great admiration for the Old Flemish Masters and was their match. With his craft, he belonged to their time, not ours.

But he quickly moved up to the 20th century, losing none of his abilities. He followed the Spirit of the Times and (like every other artist, including writers), he deconstructed his painting: each square of light on human flesh was brought out in bold strokes; no wart or defect of his sitter escaped his brutal gaze.

If a woman had raw, blistered working woman's hands, like the one portrayed below, he would paint them in all their rawness.

If a woman was fat beyond imagining, he would paint every fold of blown-up flesh, huge flopping breasts, vast bellies and the tired-out, desperate face too.

Those paintings are hard to take: I remember seeing a Freud retrospective in Paris a couple of years ago, at the Beaubourg. There were row after row of naked women and savage depictions of men (including one nursing an infant and self-portraits - he was not tender with himself ). Walking out of there - almost running out - I felt sick. It was too much.

Unbearable.

And that is what makes of him one of the greatest painters of the 20th century. Yes, because the art of our times, the kind of Contemporary Art that draws crowds and makes for astonishing auction sales - with prices ten times more than the Old Masters - is one that is unbearable to the viewer. It's not art meant to be lived with in one's own home. It's monumental and arresting. It's art for the museums and public places. And Lucien Freud was a past master at producing unbearable art.

Lucien Freud is like Victor Hugo. Someone once famously said (I think it was André Gide): "le plus grand poete de la langue française? Victor Hugo, hélas!"

To paraphrase: the Greatest Artist of the Twentieth Century? Lucien Freud, alas!

freud.naked-girl-asleepNaked girl asleep by Lucien FreudImage by nigro pino via Flickr



7.21.2011

Book Promotion Stressing You Out? Here's How To Survive!

Cricket ball, used for wikiproject cricket. De...Cricket Ball Image via Wikipedia
Marketing in the digital age is a whole new ball game for everybody, but especially for writers. We all know that publishers expect their authors to do most of their own promotion and it is rumored that if you don't have at least 600 followers on Twitter, you won't get a contract!

And those of us who've gone into self-publishing are provided with opportunities that didn't exist just two or three years ago but also experience the full blast of the digital revolution - I know, I'm a self-published writer! Once upon a time, I was "traditionally" published (here in Italy and in Italian - I'm multilingual) and I used to let the publisher handle marketing issues.

No longer.

All of us self-pubbed writers have to think of how best to reach out to our readers and grab their attention long enough so that they'll click on that damn buy button! We've got Amanda Hocking, John Locke and Joe Konrath as models! They've all used their Internet presence to make a splash! And so can we, right?

A great day and age to live in, no doubt, but the stress of doing your own book marketing is AWFUL! Think of it: you've got to be on Twitter, run your blog, set up a website, a Facebook page, and now Google+... Thank God, MySpace has (more or less) disappeared! Still, if you're serious about promotion, you have to do your own book trailer, run video chats and go on blog tours (guest interviews on other writers blogs), make comments galore, participate in readers' fora like Goodreads or Kindleboards etc etc

Enough to go bonkers!

So how do you survive?

I'd love to hear how you're doing it, and here's my take.

The pressure eased off one day when I suddenly realized that ebooks are on that virtual shelf in Amazon, Barnes and Noble and elsewhere FOREVER! That means you (and I) don't have to go rushing into anything! We can take our time, stop and think and ponder our next move.

Take the time to EVALUATE what you're best at, where your chances are to make a splash.

If you're photogenic and great at talking in public, by all means, go and make videos. If not, forget it!

Don't stress, there are other ways that work just as well. Because remember, when a book is out there forever, there's plenty of time to increase your Internet presence - because your Internet presence is the only thing that matters. And it can be increased through all sorts of ways - in primis, your blog.

If you're a writer, running a blog should be no problem. It's fun to write, right? (Notice the alliteration, ha ha!)

But if a blog is a drag and you'd much rather write your novel and cuddle your baby, don't worry. Set up a nice website (or get some expert to do it for you) and let it sit there. All you need to do is update it at reasonable intervals - and make sure you leave a contact so your fans can write to you (and of course you should respond!). Because the digital age is all about direct communication with your readers!

What about Twitter? Now, here's a place a writer can make a splash, provided you can come up with entertaining tweets within the space allowed: very little!140 characters - if you download Tweetdeck on your computer (it's free), you can double that length and easily schedule tweets several times a day. Very useful.

The trick is to come out with something that is arresting. Not easy. Because, let's face it, self-promotion sucks! You feel silly standing out there on Internet, hollering "buy my book"! Not only silly, but downright useless. People won't stand for it. The soap industry learned its lesson in the 1950s when it bleated on every TV screen that its soap washed whiter than white! Direct marketing does not work, never has.

The trick is to go into indirect marketing: get other people to sell for you.

How do you do that? This is not easy either. First you need reviews. This is where going into self-publishing really hurts the most: because if you're published by one of the Big Six, they'll do it for you. They'll send your book to the best critics in the land! But don't despair. Not everyone buys books on the basis of the New York Times Bestseller List (I bet a lot of people don't - I rarely do). Indeed, readers communities like Goodreads are a great place to get promoted - by real readers, not literary critics on a newspaper's staff. Readers have a sense of community among them, they tend to trust each other.

Okay, friends can help too. But be careful: what you need are honest reviews - not stuff that smacks of self-promotion. And that gushing 5 star review full of not-to-be-believed praise will hurt you far more than an honest 4 or 3 star review with a lot less praise...

So, once you've got a few, believable lines of praise, do use them in a Twitter campaign! Make sure you use hashtags to throw your net far and wide: these little # signs that you put in front of keywords. They pull together tweets under the said #subject and that's how you attract the attention of people who are not your followers. You can even run contests on Twitter, though that (to me) sounds quite stressful and I'm not at all sure how effective a contest can be: it all depends on how far you manage to throw your net (but that would be the subject of another post).

Anyway, that's my strategy: get reviews, build up interest in what you can offer readers as "useful content" and don't worry about book promotion.

Remember, in the digital world (unlike the physical), time is on your side!

What is your strategy to promote your book? How do you handle the stress? Please let us have your tips!




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7.18.2011

The Curious Case of Belgium: A Headless State

Bilingual signs in Brussels.Image via Wikipedia
Belgium has been "headless", i.e. without a government for over a year: a world record, even beating Iraq at it!

Why is that? We all know the problems between the Flemish (Dutch speaking) and Walloons (French speaking). We all know this has been going on for as long as Belgium has existed.

The political parties can't get their act together and nominate a government, so the country carries on with a caretaker government, with good old Leterme at the helm. Regularly, there's an effort to put together a government, and just as regularly it fails. The Flemish won't hear about it: they're fed up with government funds - resulting from their tax payments, because they are the richer taxpayers - going to the Walloons, who are the poorer ones.

What is so very curious about the situation is this: the country is doing fine, thank you, without any government in power. It's doing fine financially and economically (at least it's no worse than most Euro-zone countries and considerably better than the PIIGS). It's even managing to participate in the international community: not only has it joined the Battle for Libya, but it has just confirmed its commitment.

So does Belgium need a government at all?

Good question!

First, it says a lot about the kind of political class we are saddled with: they are not actually the people governing us. The state bureaucracy is - the much decried bureaucracy. Is there something good about it, after all?

Two, governing people with any effectiveness means moving closer to them. Down to their level. The Flemish want to be governed by the Flemish and no one else. Same for the Walloons and come to think of it, that parochial attitude is true everywhere in Europe: in Italy, the Lumbards want to govern Padania and have nothing to do with Rome; in Spain, the Basques prefer to throw bombs rather than listen to Madrid; in France, Brittany has historically felt independant etc etc

Third, in a European context where the EU is still making progress - the Euro crisis notwithstanding -, it is not clear what the role and place of State Governments are, or will be.

For example, if Europe comes closer together on major foreign policy issues, including on such matters as war, then one of the major roles of European governments will disappear. No doubt that is why Lady Ashton is having such a difficult time in becoming a European Foreign Affairs Minister: nobody wants that! But it is written in the EU constitution and sooner or later it will come to pass.

So is Belgium in government limbo because a government is not needed?
Baroness Ashton of Upholland, British politicianLady AshtonImage via Wikipedia










Regions of BelgiumImage via Wikipedia
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7.17.2011

Military Democracy: an Inevitable Outcome of the Arab Spring?

A political vintage poster from 1960sImage by Kodak Agfa via Flickr
The Arab Spring could spawn off a new kind of political animal: the military democracy. Egypt seems to be headed in that direction.

In spite of the summer heat, protests have recently multiplied in Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, and the usual pattern of soft response from the Egyptian Military Council has not placated the protesters. They insist they want Mubarak tried right away, that the military are taking too much time to move the country into a new democratic government, that the role of the military should be reduced and civil society given priority. As one of the protest leaders told the BBC: "We want a proper transition to democracy".

Now the military have announced they are directly participating in the drafting of the new Constitution through the adoption of a "declaration of basic principles" to govern it. It seems, according to legal experts involved in drafting these principles, that the military's expenditures would be shielded from parliamentary scrutiny. "Proposals under consideration would give the military a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics to protect national unity or the secular character of the state" (see NYT article below)

To protest national unity or the "secular character" of the state? Really?

The intention is clear, the cards are finally on the table. Egypt is headed for a military democracy à la Ataturk. Because that's exactly what happened in Turkey: the new republic that displaced the Ottoman Empire was in the iron grip of a pro-Western, secular military elite. They intervened in Turkish political life everytime they deemed it necessary to defend their view on how civilian life should be run (down to details like the ban on women's head scarves). It then took 70 years and Erdogan to loosen the grip (and we still don't know with what consequences - but that's worth another post).

It has become quite clear to everybody in Egypt that the benign military, the protector of the people, is not quite so benign after all.

The military is a historic power in Egypt, and ever since the monarchy fell in 1952 and King Farouk was exiled, the military have run the show, first with Naguib, next with Nasser. Also, and an important point, the military, not only benefits from American aid to renew regularly its arsenal, but it owns directly a considerable slice of the economy - nobody knows how much, but it could be worth anywhere between 10 and 20% of GDP or more. As Matt Berman points out, "the military is in charge of constructing roads and bridges, it produces cars and clothing, it even grows and processes food". As he explains, the role of the military grew larger with every war since the 1960s: "once a peace treaty was signed, the military decided that it would be economically and socially risky to just cut loose all of its forces. So instead of just throwing its forces into the job market, the military decided to go into business."

In the Middle East, and across the world if one is to judge from the excellent BBC review of the results of the Arab Spring six months after it started (see article below), all eyes are trained on Egypt. Although the Arab Spring didn't start there (it began in Tunisia, much earlier, at the end of 2010, remember?), the ouster of Mubarak in February through peaceful demonstrations supported by the military was a historic turning point.
Egypt - the most populous country in the region, with the longest most prestigious history going back to the Pharaohs - is universally considered the bearer of the Arab Spring - the harbinger of revolution, the leader in the transition to democracy.

Will that transition happen? El Baradei, who used to head the IAEA and is now a candidate for the Egyptian presidency would like the "declaration" proposed by the military  subjected to referendum so that the role of the military in government "would have some legitimacy", as he put it.

"Some legitimacy"? That's an interesting concept: some, but not too much legitimacy...Honestly, I don't know where Egypt is headed, but this is extremely worrisome.

In my view the transition to democracy is seriously compromised. What is your opinion?





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7.14.2011

The Greek Crisis is Becoming a Euro-Crisis!

Devil's Marbleyard: PigImage by Vicky TGAW via Flickr
Now you can add Italy to the original PIGS quartet!  We're up to PIIGS, and what other letters are next?

The UK Guardian came up with this wonderful Euro-crisis Song that explains it all: click HERE. 

Enjoyed it? Yes, better laugh than cry over it.

Friday 15 July 2011 or, what is more likely, Monday 18th,  the European Big Heads will again have a "special summit meeting" in Brussels  to "decide" on how to proceed. So far, "decisions" have eluded them.

Still, it could be D-Day for the Euro.

Or should I say a C-Day? D is for default, natch, and C is for crisis.

How did we ever get there? The credit rating agencies have added fuel to the fire, no question about it, but the fire was started by the Europeans themselves.

Now everybody suddenly realizes that the Euro does not exist. It's a figment of the (European) imagination. A daydream that hasn't come to pass. Because a currency needs a Central Bank (the Euro's got that) and a Treasury/Finance Ministry, whatever you want to call it, i.e. somebody who levies taxes and finances the government activities, whatever they are (this, the Euro hasn't got).  

There's not one Treasury or Finance Ministry behind the Euro, but 17 - one for each member of the Eurozone.

Crazy! How do you expect these guys to agree on anything? Particularly on sensitive political issues like pensions, retirement age, tax rates etc Believe me, they cannot agree on anything. Not even on the size of the bailout fund needed to protect not just the PIGS but the PIIGS! 

The markets did not need the credit rating agencies to tell them that this was an unworkable arrangement. And that the bailout or "rescue fund" so far agreed to might bail out Greece, but certainly NOT Italy, the third largest Eurozone economy.

This is not funny. Because if Italy goes under, banks around the world will go down - yes, in America too. The 2008 crisis brought on by Lehman's demise will look like a dainty hors d'oeuvre. A light antipasto. This is going to be the real thing, a main dish that no one will be able to digest, not even the biggest American banks. True, Italians themselves hold about half of their debt - problem is: the debt is huge. And if you add the afore-mentioned PIGS to the soup, you have a truly hellish stew of hundreds of billions of debt going sour all of a sudden!

Our savvy European politicians are talking about increasing the rescue fund. Even the British who are out of the Eurozone are worried: after all, 40% of their exports go to the Eurozone and who likes to lose a lucrative market?

What fund size will do the trick? I don't know, I don't have the numbers: much of the data is kept hidden from us poor citizens, and in any case, the multiplying effect of the (still-unregulated) derivatives market are hard to predict. All one can be sure of, is that it's going to be hard, very, very hard to achieve.

Okay, Italy, like the Wall Street behemoths, is reputed to be  "too big to fail". Is that a consolation? What if it does fail? Nothing is ever impossible.

So why limit the rescue mechamisms to a bailout fund? Why not consider Euro-bonds that would be guaranteed by ALL the Eurozone member countries, Germany included? In other words, pull together all the financial might of all 17 members (minus the PIIGS, of course - but they have to follow suit and toe the line - which they already are, just consider all those austerity measures in place...)

I'm singling out Germany because at this point, Germany should stop dragging its feet: if the crisis has reached the current dramatic point of no-return, it's because of Germany's delays and worse, its adamant refusal some months back to consider the floating of euro-bonds, as originally proposed by Juncker and Tremonti.

Let's not forget  that so far Germany has been the great winner in the Euro-zone, the one country that has truly benefited from the Euro.

Germany, it's time you paid up and join in to save the Euro!



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7.10.2011

The Credit Rating Agencies' Hidden Agenda: Rock the World Economy!

Kill BillImage via Wikipedia
The credit rating agencies are threatening country after country with "rating downgrade". Many erstwhile respectable countries find themselves degraded to "junk" status - yet these are countries with a long History and hard-working citizens, like Portugal and Greece (yes, there are honest citizens there too, even if the Germans don't believe it!).

It's like going to school: if you're a "well-behaved" government keeping your debt under control, then you earn an A, even a triple A, like the United States.

If you're "badly-behaved" and can't keep your debt from blowing out of control, then you get a "B", and fewer investors will buy your bonds (some funds have strict rules about buying only A rated bonds). If you still won't toe the line, then you get a "C" and no investors will buy your bonds the next time you go to market to refill your coffers.

In a nutshell, that's how credit rating agencies call the shots on the international scene, and get sovereign governments cowering and scampering for cover. Italy is the latest country that has come under fire, causing Tremonti, Italy's finance minister to work on the double to put into place a "maneuver" - "manovra" in Italian, meaning more taxes and less benefits. In other words: a quick dose of austerity. And it could spell out BIG trouble for the Eurozone as it is not remotely ready to protect a country as big as Italy: the rescue fund currently in place is simply not enough. Click here for more info on this.

And if the United States Congress doesn't lift the "debt ceiling" by next August 2nd (i.e. allow the government's debt to rise above the pre-set limit), the United States itself could see it's status downgraded... Perhaps not to the level of "junk" - but a downgrade would have a terrifying effect worldwide, much worse than Greece, Portugal and Italy combined, considering the size of the American debt.

But of course such a scenario is unthinkable. There are only three major credit agencies that call the shots; several countries have their own, including the Chinese, but they have no effect worldwide. And, no doubt a curious by-product of American capitalism, it so happens that all three agencies are American: Fitch, Standard & Poor's and Moody's. Don't be fooled by any of them having dual headquarters in Europe. They are all American and use American-trained economists as their analytical staff.

So, right or wrong, the US has felt pretty safe so far (yes, so far...but who knows).

Europeans are not so happy. European politicians have repeatedly gotten annoyed at the Three Big agencies, and called for the creation of a European credit agency, and barring that, more stringent rating agency regulations. The latest to call for a new European agency has been the German Foreign Affairs Minister - which is interesting, considering how the Germans have so far handled the Greek debt crisis and how they still resist setting up either an effective rescue fund or common defense mechanisms. Like, for example, floating Eurobonds that would be guaranteed by all Eurozone members, Germany included (natch, and that's the rub as far as the Germans are concerned: they've been the winners with the Euro but they don't want to pay to defend it).

There is little doubt that the Euro's very existence is threatened by the barrage of downgrading coming out of the Three Big. And the Euro is an easy prey for attack: economists have always held that no currency is viable if it isn't backed by a sovereign political entity capable of conducting (1) a monetary policies and (2) fiscal/social security policies. That's the key to a viable, world currency.

The Euro just isn't there. The European Central Bank only covers monetary policies. And it's made very clear that it will follow the ratings set by the Big Three: for example, in the case of Greece, the Big Three have indicated that getting private bondholders of Greek debt to agree to a roll over or delay in payment was akin to "selective default" - and in that case, the European Central Bank would stop financing Greek banks.

All the rest of the policies that affect a currency - from tax to pensions - is still in the hands of the 17 Eurozone member governments. Judging from the lack of leadership displayed by European politicians, it is likely to remain that way for a very long time.

That means the Euro can crash with a very little nudge - all it would take is for Spain or Italy to threaten to go under (no need to actually go under - just the threat will do).

The little nudge comes from the Three Big, of course, who gleefully note that austerity is needed to control the deficit but it slows growth - making therefore a country unable to ever pay back its debt.Meaning what? Default on te horizon!

So you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.

What kind of economists do the Three Big Agencies employ? What is their agenda? To destroy sovereign debt because their agency clients have placed bets on that particular outcome?

Do you think I'm exaggerating? Perhaps there's not an actual plot, perhaps it's just an unfortunate set of circumstances.  But it's a fact that the Three Big in question are NOT independent: they are paid for by their clients. Who are their clients? Big corporations wanting to raise money on the stock market, financial power houses like Goldman Sachs. In short, the big guys with big money, that's who. And they need the Big Three for their financial maneuvers: without a rating, you can't float anything on the market, can't get an IPO going, can't do your financial cooking.

The Euro was an obvious target, as it hobbled along on one leg only (the monetary one). And an obvious, easy way to make money: bet on its demise and get the credit rating agencies to say so. Nobody can be accused of collusion, because it makes economic sense: austerity cures deficits, austerity causes recessions, so a default is inescapable, sooner or later. Plus alert the media, that acts as an echo, amplifying the Big Three's ratings that otherwise wouldn't be heard.

And voilà! You have the Irish crisis, the Greek crisis, the Portuguese crisis, and probably the Italian crisis next.

Will the world economy really collapse because of this incredibly selfish and dangerous betting game?

Perhaps not. The politicians and the taxpayers (always us!) will come to the rescue. That's what's expected, right? And it will be done at the last moment - after summer (the Germans have asked to delay decisions on the Greek bailout until September). I guess our politicians don't want to have their holiday spoiled.

How do you feel about this state of affairs?

I'm disgusted. European politicians are a revolting lot, all they think of is their next election and Europe be damned! 





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