The Euro-Crisis: Has the European Central Bank Woken Up at Last?!

A euro light sculpture at the European Central...Euro Sculpture at the ECB in FrankfurtImage via Wikipedia
With Standard & Poor's downgrading of the US debt, we got one step closer to global financial meltdown.

And of course, the weakest link in the system, i.e. the Euro-zone, got hit first.

With interests soaring last week on the Italian and Spanish bonds, the signals the markets were sending to our political leaders (if you can call them that) were crystal clear: After Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Spain and Italy are next!

Trouble is: no one can allow Italy (or even Spain for that matter) to go down the drain. That would make a $1.4 trillion hole, by some accounts. Whatever the size of the hole, it's obviously too big and makes the Lehman Brothers debacle look like a kiddy game, by comparison.

Let's be clear: it would mean the end of the world as we know it - and the Chinese, inter alia, are very, very worried. And so they should be. And so should we be all.

Sunday, the European Central Bank finally came out with a communiqué that left no doubt as to its intentions: it would buy Italian and Spanish bonds - in other words, it came out at last with a real, responsible position as central banker and defender of the Euro.

We'll see how the markets react this week. The proof is in the speculative pudding. But even speculators betting against the Euro are ultimately fools: they might (momentarily) make a lot of money, but they'll bring down the system and then where will they be?? Naked, of course.

The only problem in all this is that we shall be naked too!

Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Please let me know how you feel about this issue. This is something that has me very, very worried (like the Chinese!). But I'm hopeful that reason will somehow prevail in the end...
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What's in a Pen Name?

Montelimar's Nougat. Photograph taken in Redon...Montelimar's Nougat Image via Wikipedia
What's in a name?  People hide behind pseudonyms and pen names, or what the French so nicely call "nom de plume", and I've always wondered why.

Do you have a pen name? And if you do, why? Is it to hide from family and friends and gain more freedom? Is it to make a statement or maybe indicate the kind of writing you do, like a different pen name for a different genre (lots of writers do that, it's a question of "branding")? Or does it better express the kind of person you are than the name you were born with?

Charles Dodgson is a famous example of picking a pen name to hide behind:  he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the name Lewis Carroll to preserve his reputation as a serious mathematician. Famous authors also use pen names to get away from their fame or intrigue their readers. Carmela Ciuraru's Nom de Plume, recently published by Harper's, is full of fascinating information about this.

And how did you come about your pen name? 

Many friends have asked me why I picked Nougat as a pen name. My mother (age 97) was rather annoyed at this: "why did you pick such a silly name when you were born with a perfectly good one?"

Well, I don't think Nougat is a silly name. Actually, nougat is rather a yummy thing, isn't it? You know what nougat is, don't you? It's a wonderful traditional sweet made of almonds and honey, usually white and sticky, but it can be covered with chocolate, dark or light, and filled with crunchy nuts. In Italy (where I live), it comes in all kinds and shapes: small, big, long, short, soft and gooey, hard and crunchy.

A fellow writer, Martin King, recently approached me via Twitter with a neat idea. He had decided to run a #blogfest as he called it, a "100 Blogs Festival" this August, and to give it focus he'd picked on childhood memories, and asked me to contribute one of my own.  If you want to read about childhood memories (some rather weird and intriguing), here's the link: http://martinkingauthor.com/blog/7094550076

That got me thinking, and I remembered that my pen name actually came about through a childhood memory of sorts.

One day, when I was fourteen, my father idly wondered how one makes such extraordinarily different types of nougat, particularly the crunchy vs. the gooey sort .

I had a ready answer: it all depends on how it's cooked. He looked interested so I went on, explaining that for the crunchy variety you have to beat the egg whites hard and dry the whole thing in a slow oven, while the gooey sort only uses the yolk and you have to carefully cook it in a double-boiler. 

"How do you know that?" he asked. 

I told him I didn't, I just guessed that's the way it had to be. I never lied to my father - that's the generation I belong to, the one that was still submissive through adolescence - and that was, of course, my downfall. 

He laughed and immediately made a verb of it: "Claude, you are nougatizing!"

I was annoyed at first, but then gave in. It's true: I do nougatize about everything. I did then, I do now. I make up theories, I feel good about them. I think that's the fun side of life! And I've never stopped nougatizing since!

Whether this pen name will help me in my writing career, I don't know. One writer, Jamie Hall, really delved into the question and if you're thinking of crafting a pen name for yourself, this is a must read (see here). He even came up with the notion that you should avoid a name in the second part of the alphabet (from N to Z) because your books would be shelved out of sight!

Yikes! Nougat starts with N!

Well, so far, my book is only digital and that's the advantage of virtual shelves: not only are they up there forever, but you're not sitting in any specific alphabet-determined location! Phew, I feel reassured!

So if you have a pen name, why did you chose it? Are you happy with it?

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Why the Debt Deal Will Hurt America and Obama

"The Third-Term Panic", by Thomas Na...Image via Wikipedia
And why the rest of the world has to absorb the mess!

At the last minute, before the August 2nd deadline, Congress voted to increase the debt ceiling, just enough to avoid government shutdown, and worse for America's reputation, downgrading of its debt by the now infamous rating agencies, Moody's, Fitch and S&Ps.

Yet the debt deal between President Obama and the Republican-led Congress was anything but satisfactory: according to a new CNN poll (released on 2 August), it has left most Americans (77%!) disgusted with their political class. And going beyond public opinion and looking at the reality of the situation, it has left unsolved all the essential problems besetting the American economy, while seriously threatening Obama's chances at re-election in 2012.

The plan just approved in Washington is anything but straightforward. Instead of the $4 trillion savings the rating agencies wanted to see implemented, there's just an  initial savings of $917 billion and perhaps another $1.5 billion by the end of the year, based on recommendations of a bipartisan joint House and Senate committee - a committee of 12 sages (!). If not, then automatic across-the-board spending cuts would kick in.

First, the economy. How will the debt deal hurt it? Remember the economy is already in slowdown mode. The Great Recession may be over (although that's debatable) but unemployment remains the number one problem with nearly 15 million people unemployed. Trouble is: the debt deal is mum on this point. Not a word. It's all about cutting the deficits, finding more savings and raising taxes. And, as we all know, cutting government expenditures means drawing down on activities in the service industries and sending civil servants home. Net result: more unemployment, more pain.

This is a repeat of History, when President Roosevelt tried to curb the deficit in 1937 and the economy plunged back in recession. It took World War II spending to finally take America out of the Big Depression.

The American political system appears to be acutely dysfunctional at present. The historic polarization of American society, traditionally divided between Republicans and Democrats, has taken a turn for the worse recently, with the Republicans lurching to Tea Party extremes. Just take a look at the two books I attached below: they couldn't be further apart in their ideological positions. And the latest news is that the Senate failed to authorize refinancing of the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.): this means that for another month at least, airport inspectors won't be paid and are asked to work out of the goodness of their heart to ensure airport safety!

Is that a serious way to run a democracy? At the expense of citizens' safety?

Second, Obama. On the face of it,you might think he managed to pull off some pretty clever maneuvering in the face of a ruthless Tea Party-led Congress. They started out talking about $4 trillion cut, they're down to $2.1. Is that a good, or even credible result? No. It's just playing around with numbers: these guys have simply agreed to keep raising the debt ceiling in the same proportion as the deficit is cut. But the main advances the Democrats stood for and Obama tried to enact have all - yes, everyone one of them - been rejected. Politically, this is a great victory for the Republicans and a great defeat for the Democrats. Worse, the President is the one who surrendered. He pushed himself forward in the negotiations, but he didn't come home with anything worthwhile for the middle class he says he wants to defend.

He now says he's going to campaign on raising taxes on the wealthy - that might win back some of the Democrats, but not all.

Because he has let his electorate down and many Democrats are not only disappointed, they are actually furious with him. This does not bode well for his re-election...

Of course, the elections are still far off - over a year's time - and the economic situation could improve, you never know. As is well known, any incumbent president needs good economic numbers to win re-election. That was the case with Bill Clinton who also faced a Republican Congress and had to give in on many political issues at the time. But the economy was picking up and he was re-elected. Can Obama hope for the same? Not likely. It would require a real change - for example a strong government support for clean energies, an effort to help and retrain the unemployed for new jobs, a real change in the fiscal injustices that allow American corporations to avoid paying taxes in the measure of...$1 trillion per year (yes, that's not a typo!). In the present political context, there is clearly not the slightest chance that this will come to pass. What with Republicans bent on cutting back the role of government to its absolute minimum and a President who is afraid to stand up to their demands, the outlook is dire. Perhaps Obama is not actually afraid, but unquestionably he lacks negotiating experience: he hasn't been long enough around Washington and still believes in what people tell him. It's refreshing, to be sure, but unquestionably naive.

Finally, just to make matters worse, it is very likely that one, if not all three, of the rating agencies will downgrade the US debt byt a notch or two. If not right away, in a few months' time when it becomes evident to all that Washington is playing a political game with the debt that has nothing to do with responsible economic governance.

Tentative conclusion: A downgrading of the US debt in the near future. And that is sure to send the world in a tailspin.

Because, up to now, the international trade system was based on the American dollar. The US treasury bonds were the ultimate safe investment.

The ultimate irony is - would you ever believe it? - that in spite of all the American debt deal mess, the American dollar and US Treasure bills will continue to play their fundamental role in the global financial play between nations.

And do you know why? Because of the situation in Europe. With the festering two-year old Euro crisis that is now threatening to extend from Greece, Ireland and Portugal to Spain and Italy, there is still no currency that can rival the dollar. Certainly not Japan still struggling to recover from the Tsunami. And not Switzerland - the safe haven par excellence - but too small to play a global role (an as I am writing, the Swiss Central Bank is now working to curb the Swiss Franc's rise). The Chinese renmimbi? Don't count on it. The Chinese have internal political problems of their own, plus a steady rise in production costs not to mention dangerous imbalances caused by a mad real estate bubble.

In short, we are in the hands of incredibly incapable politicians all around, on both sides of the Atlantic, and it's not likely to get better any time soon!

What's your take on this?Do you think we'll escape a double dip recession and continue with a Strong Dollar underpinning the World Economy? Or are we headed downhill?

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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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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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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!


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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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.


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


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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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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