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9.30.2011

Dylan Paintings Cause a Storm of Criticisms: Is it Fair?

When Bob Dylan the Singer became a Painter and had a show in the famed Gagosian gallery, all hell broke loose. Why? Because his paintings are made from photographs that are not even his own! People started throwing insults like "plagiarism!" or suggesting that he wasn't really painting from "real life" (see the numerous articles below).

The New York Times used a more restrained tone, check here. Still, I'm sure that in many people's mind the damage is done.

Is it fair to Dylan? Is he really a great singer and a lousy painter?

Here's the way I see it and you can judge for yourself.

First consider how close his paintings are to photographs. The one reported by the New York Times that is most striking is this one (even the details in the background are the same):

"Trade" by Bob Dylan. 
Marcus Yam for The New York Times“Trade” by Bob Dylan.
A Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from 1948. 
Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum PhotosA Henri Cartier-Bresson photograph from 1948.

Before you run away screaming, let me point out that many famous painters have used photography as props for their paintings. 

Perhaps the first and greatest among them was Delacroix, celebrated for his horses. One thing is sure, he was able to catch them in movement better than anyone before him thanks to photographs. With the exception of Michelangelo of course, but that doesn't count: Michelangelo was a flat out genius.  

And Delacroix didn't even take his own photos. Just like Bob Dylan.


Surprised? Actually before photography was invented, painters used the camera oscura - for example, Canaletto and  Vermeer. There is little doubt that both owe to that technique the superb accuracy of their paintings -  the perspective of Venice palaces and canals in Canaletto's case, and the proportion of  Dutch women in their interiors in Vermeer's case. 

Here's a Canaletto, judge for yourself:
View of the Entrance to the Venetian Arsenal, ...View of entrance to Venetian Arsenal Image via Wikipedia

The use of the camera oscura is also particularly evident in some of Vermeer's paintings, like this one (the music lesson) where the perspective of the geometric pavement could not have been achieved without mechanical help:
Vermeer's Music Lesson uses semi-transparent g...Music lesson Image via Wikipedia

 Does this mean that Vermeer and Canaletto are not amazing artists?

I don't think so. Of course we don't have the originals, we can't judge exactly how they "tweaked" what they saw, how they transcended reality. But transcend, they did!

The same process is at work with photographs, and it can be such a radical process that the photograph is one thing and the painting quite another. Just to illustrate my point if I may be allowed to use examples drawn from my own work (don't worry, I'm not going to push my paintings on you - I'm well aware I'm not in the Vermeer/Canaletto class!).

Here's a photo of an olive tree I took in Sicily:

And here's a first painting:

And here's another, one step further into abstraction (both are oil on wood panel):

See how far the painting is from the original?

The same can be said for the photos and paintings of people. One day I roamed the Paris tube taking photos, and used them to make what I called a "counterlight" series of paintings (always oil on wood). For example, one photo of a perplexed looking man:

Resulted in this painting:

Compared to the original photograph, the painting is an exercise in creative freedom! I'm not saying it's good or bad and you don't need to like them. I just wanted to show the leeway an artist has with the reality a photo gives him. You start at a well known point, say point A, and then you the artist, with your sensibilities, you move to any other point in the alphabet! That's what makes Art so fascinating! The endless possibility of twisting reality...I'm not pretending that my work is in any way remarkable, just that it offers one interpretation on reality. I could have gone in all sorts of different directions: acquarelle, line drawing, cubist painting, abstract, anything. Actually I'd love to turn my olive trees into sculptures (but no time for that: I'm busy writing the third book of my Fear of the Past trilogy!)

There is really no difference between working directly from reality or from the image of reality given by a camera. Indeed many artists don't work from either: they use what they remember seeing - that's what Picasso often did, and he gave himself absolute freedom when he deconstructed his memories in the various styles he chose (from cubism to neo-classicism).

Now take a close look at Bob Dylan's painting reproduced here. Forget the similarities with the photograph. Focus on what is different. See how far he diverges from the Cartier-Bresson photo: he has applied to it a subtle palette of earthy colors, that highlight the earthiness of the dealers. What we can't see here (because we are looking at a photograph of a painting) is the texture of the painting: is it rough and scraggly? Shiny and smooth? Texture matters in a painting, it's half the pleasure! To know how Dylan's paintings are like you need to go look at them in the Gagosian gallery...

The fact that Bob Dylan has chosen to work from a given reality (that of Cartier-Bresson and other photographers) doesn't make him, in my humble opinion, less of an artist. He has reworked what he sees with his own emotions and visual sensibilities.

What do you think? Is Bob Dylan an artist or a plagiarist? I believe he's the former....

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9.27.2011

More American Adults Read Literature According To New NEA Study

Earth with SunburstImage via WikipediaGood News! Read this: More American Adults Read Literature According To New NEA Study

The survey, carried out by the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), a public agency created in 1965, is solid: it covered a big sample (18,000 adults) and was done in partnership with the US Census Bureau.

The NEA Chairman talks of a "dramatic turnaround". And so it is!


This marks a SEA CHANGE in American reading habits in the last 25 years! Every previous survey (in 1982-92 and 1992-2002) had turned up declines in reading rates!

It reports that in 2008 there were 16.6 million new readers of literature (novels, short stories, plays and poems), and most of them young adults, of which the largest group is between the age of 18 and 24, and it's also the one most rapidly increasing: 21%!


Wow! That's mind boggling! It's not old people retiring who are reading more, no,  it's YOUNG PEOPLE! That's truly promising! It means our literary future is not going to be bare, the written word in this Internet Age is not going to disappear!

To understand what happened you need to look at social and economic changes, in addition of course to the NEA's own activities to promote reading (among them, a quite respectable push to attract American attention on Shakespeare, reaching some 21 million people). Let's remember that the economy was booming along  until 2007/2008 - presumably lifting upwards the lower middle classes. Therefore, and not unsurprisingly,  the sharpest overall increase in reading rate was among Hispanic Americans (+20%) followed by African Americans (+15%).

In terms of literary preferences, fiction continued to win (novels, short stories) while poetry continued to decline. Guess poetry is not well adapted to 21st century tastes!

The other interesting aspect is that in 2008, already 15% of adults read their fiction online - yet that was the year just before the Kindle and e-reader explosion! So the digital revolution (I mean ebooks) hadn't really impacted yet the results of this survey - it was just starting.

Wonder what American reading habits look like now, considering that Amazon sells more ebooks than printed books, and the rate of increase of ebooks is reportedly some 21% a year.

In terms of absolute size, the American market is simply huge (it's half the total population): some 119 millions read books in any format, of which 113 million read fiction!

Take heart newbies and aspiring writers! The future is bright!



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9.25.2011

Euro Crisis: Greece is not the Problem, Germany Is!

Protest - Enough Is EnoughImage by infomatique via Flickr



The Euro crisis is precipitating. European banks have yet to recover from the 2008 financial crisis, markets are in a panic. When the world policy elite met in Washington on Saturday 24 September at the World Bank and the IMF, the Americans insisted, especially with Germany, that something be done. But European leaders hummed and hawed, acknowledging that their July plan (still not applied) was a little weak, that more needed to be done. Two days earlier, the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia India, China, South Africa) had met in New York, playing up the might of their $4 trillion reserve and what they might do with it.

Both meetings had but one topic: the Euro and how to save it.

Both meetings resulted in nothing.

Maybe this week will bring some news from Europe. Maybe not. In Germany, any bailout proposal has to go through parliamentary approval. A vote is scheduled next week, but who knows how it will go now that Merkel's political capital is at its lowest.

Yet none of this need have happened if only Merkel had moved earlier, as soon as the Greek crisis had started over a year ago. But she constantly dragged her feet and listened to her business-supported minority party that objected to a Greek bail-out and accused the Greeks of immoral profligacy. That particular political platform however, has not been a success: it has brought that party  from a respectable 18% share to a miserable  2% at the last elections in Berlin! One may presume that the German business community is not particularly happy with a position that threatens both the Euro and world economic stability!

Sure, everybody in the financial world knew the Greeks had cooked their debt numbers in order to enter the Euro zone. Everybody knew that democracy in Greece was a corrupt game of You Vote for Me/I Give You a Job, a Pension, a Promotion, in short  a vote-for-goodies system.

Every democracy has this sort of problem to a certain extent, from pork-barrel politics in the US to energy scandals in India. So the Greeks have invented nothing new here.

But it's German obtuseness that is causing the problem.

Almost from the beginning of the crisis, the financial measure that could have saved the situation was proposed: euro-bonds backed by all 17 Euro zone members. First Juncker and the Italian Finance Minister Tremonti proposed it. Most recently Mario Draghi, the new President of the European Central Bank is pushing the idea (he will succeed Jean-Claude Trichet next month).

But the Germans have always refused. NEIN!  It must be said that Christine Lagarde supported that position when she was still French Finance Minister. Now that she is the head of the IMF she has changed her point of view and is no longer pushing for fiscal austerity. Instead she is talking about measures to kick start economic growth. One up to her: that is a huge change in the IMF traditionally wedded to fiscal rigor.

Indeed, it's about time that our policy elite realized that the real problem is not the deficit but the threat of recession - indeed, the Greek economy has already contracted by some 5%. How can you expect these people to ever repay any debt if you don't focus on economic growth??

Another thing that is crystal clear: if Greece defaults, Italy is next.

And after Italy? Why, Germany itself will totter. That's what the US Treasury Secretary Geithner delicately calls the European "cascading default threat".

And so will the rest of the world, starting with the US. The  BRICS are painfully aware that they risk losing their best markets for a very long time!

And to think that Germany has been the MAIN beneficiary of the Euro! Speak of ingratitude...

What beats me is why the Germans won't accept Euro-bonds. It's such a simple, elegant solution. It spreads the risk equitably, everyone ends up participating and being taxed in proportion. And it would still leave some 40 % of a country's national debt in its own hands. It would cover only 60% of the debt (in line with the Maastricht agreements), thus forcing countries to take responsibility for their own economic and fiscal policies (mistakes will lead to higher rates on their own bonds).

Sure, it means Germany will pay more on 60% of its debt - not around the 2% it's paying now, but probably around 4% or 5% (I don't have a crystal ball, but I would guess that's the range). On the rest of debt funding, it will continue to get the nice rate it is so proud of. Though, as its economic is currently slowing down, it's not very likely that this rate will remain at that nice low level for that much longer...

All this reminds of a family deciding to put its patchwork bits of bed cover together and create one big cover to keep warm. There's a bit of cover for everyone, but if one (Germany) decides to keep all the cover it can for itself, leaving others naked in the cold (Greece, Ireland, Portugal), well...it's not nice! You don't pull all the cover to yourself and the others be damned! When you got into this cover agreement, you knew that you'd have to take responsibility for sharing the cover...

So why did Germany enter the Euro if it didn't want to take on any responsibility for the common currency? Why didn't it stop Greece (and the others) from entering?

Really, it looks like Germany is the one who shouldn't have entered...

But now, there's no time to be lost in throwing the blame on anybody. The damage is done, no matter whose fault it is. The EURO NEEDS TO BE SAVED ASAP. That means:
    (1) launching Eurobonds to stabilize the financial markets - that's what the markets expect and are waiting for!
    (2) strengthening the proposed €440 billion bailout scheme, the so-called European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF): make it work, dammit! Recapitalize European banks with it!
    (3) support consumer demand, don't dampen it with taxes and other austerity measures! If you insist on balancing the budget, then you have to adjust tax rates to weigh more on the rich, reform social security entitlements to align with demographic and economic realities, fight tax evasion and every other form of stealing the State, including false invalidity pensions. In short, in balancing the budget, never forget to stimulate growth, it is key to avoid European recession followed by global collapse!

What do you think? Do you see any other solution to save the Euro and the world from recession?



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9.23.2011

Wonky Journalism is Back in Fashion: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Glottal cycle, animatedGlottal Cycle - Image via Wikipedia

One of my all-time favorites! Would you believe Tom Wolfe's irreverent masterpiece has been picked up by Time as one of its 100 Best Nonfiction Books???


I bet Tom Wolfe would have a fit...actually, maybe he's having it? He hated conventional wisdom and conventional style. He broke all the rules and wrote the way he breathed.

Wow, I fell in love with his "voice"! Back in the Sixties when his book came out, we used to talk about a "writing style", not a "voice". I hate that habit of using the term "voice" for the way a writer writes: he's not speaking, damn it, he's writing! So how can you read his voice?

No matter.

I fell in love with his writing style. He'd hit it on the head. Bingo! Smash! Boom!

There's no question that Tom Wolfe started a new era in journalism. Following a celebrity around (in this case Ken Kesey) would never be the same again. It wasn't just following. It was...yes, climbing into his mind! Into his heart! Spreading the emotion around like thick butter! Splash!Smooch!

And in some ways, Tom Wolfe predates blogging. Indeed, the best bloggers today write very much in his style, immediate, hot and haunting. The sort of stuff that sticks with you and you want more and more of it...

Conversely, and contrary to what I thought at the time when I first read his book, Tom Wolfe DID NOT change journalism - not much anyway. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Journalists work in a set (and complex) institutional environment. Newspapers and magazines have hierarchies and responsibilities (to their investors, advertisers etc and of course the readership). You can't write freely like Tom Wolfe did, shooting from the hip! There are all sorts of people (and interests) to pay attention to! No freedom!

Yes, I know, I'm overdoing the exclamation points...but it's so liberating! That's Tom Wolfe's style, a breath of fresh air!!!

Okay now I'll stop and be serious again. What's interesting is that Tom Wolfe, after the fantastic success of his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test could have turned to pure journalism and become one of the major journalists of his time. That's what I expected him to do, he was such a genius at it.  Instead, he followed the example of Truman Capote and Hemingway, and turned to novel writing.

No doubt a great novelist too, but nothing like the experimental, ground-breaking journalism he had shown himself capable of...

What is your opinion? Did Tom Wolfe take the right turn in his life when he opted for novel writing, or didn't he?

9.19.2011

Self-Publishing in the Digital Age: 8 Reasons Why it's Golden, and 2 Reasons Why it's Not

A Picture of a eBookImage via WikipediaStigma used to be attached to self-publishing. Traditional publishers and literary agents looked down on indie publishers dubbed "vanity presses". Any aspiring writer's dream was to land a contract with one of the Big Six.

The digital revolution has changed that and now all you hear is enthusiastic talk about the dawn of a "golden age of self-publishing".

A golden age... really?

8 Reasons Why This is The Golden Age of Self-Publishing

Joel Friedlander, one of the more respected professionals in the publishing industry, has just posted a video about it (click here) giving 8 reasons for this wonderful new "golden age".

Briefly put, and using Joel's words to the best of my abilities (his presentation is not written - just a video) they are:

1. The "playing field" is leveled: by that Joel means that anyone can afford to publish - you don't need to be a publisher or have access to bookstores: digital books are produced and made available on all digital bookshelves at a minimal cost and in record time; actually, you don't need a "vanity press" to publish.

2. Easy access to tools and professionals : anyone can hire on Internet the needed editors, proofreaders, file converters, book cover specialists etc, often at very low costs;

3. Social media marketing replaces the expensive marketing strategies of yore (bookstore tours, reading club events etc): you don't travel and do everything sitting at your computer without spending money (or almost none)

4. Elimination of financial risk: since production/distribution costs are so low, your risk of losing money is minimized;

5. Prejudices against e-books and self-publishing are eroding: that, I believe is how Joel put it. Of course Amazon sells more e-books than print books. And self-publishers are tough entrepreneurs, willing to take risks and showing marketing savvy: not everyone's cup of tea (many writers still prefer to write and leave the rest to publishers). But the word "eroding" does imply that there is still some prejudice lingering...

6. Changing definition of "Book": a fascinating observation! Yes, publishers used to request long manuscripts in order to justify the price they charged. No more. You just write books at their "natural length" and short ones find markets just as easily, as proved by the Kindle Singles that sell novellas and short stories and the Milano-based 40KBooks selling strategies brilliantly focused on short non-fiction.


7. Global Nature of the Internet: true, books now sell everywhere on every continent - the American book market has been transported to every corner of the planet by Amazon, but conversely, books written in India or Sweden are becoming bestsellers in America.


8. The rise of mobile technology: sure, this is obvious but easy to overlook. Following the Kindle (it was born just 3 years ago!), we've had the Nook, the iPad etc etc and more and more people read books on their smart phones. The more mobile devices spread, the more book reading spreads...

Is all well in the brave new world of digital publishing? Not quite.

2 Reasons Why All is Not Well in Digital Self-Publishing

Of the eight reasons listed by Joel Friedlander, I believe the first is both the most important and the most deceptive.

Ambiguous, really.

While the brave new world of digital publishing has been especially beneficial to mid list authors with a big back list of titles and a good-sized fan base, it hasn't been so for newbies. Sure, young Amanda Hocking famously made it in 10 months with her Trylle Trilogy and landed a contract with one of the Big Six (St. Martin's Press). But that was last year.

I don't think that performance can be easily repeated today.

Why not? because of two new reasons that are changing the playing field Joel is talking about: it is no longer leveled. And that means that the window of opportunity for newbie writers which propelled the likes of Amanda Hocking to the top is rapidly closing up.

There are two reasons why self-publishing in the digital age has become much harder for aspiring writers:

1. Tough competition from mid list authors: they have what it takes to make a success of self-publishing, that is: several books. You can't have just one up there! It doesn't look serious! I know I do, but I'm busy on my second one (should be available next week) and working on my third (it's got to be out before Christmas). God, the pressure is intense, believe me! While your long-published writer can simply relax and pull out his or her back list and publish books one after the other like hot cakes.

Julie Ortolon in her Survival Guide makes no bones about this: along with Konrath, Scott Nicholson and so many other professional writers, she urges writers to put up several books on that digital book shelf! If you add the fact that mid list authors already have a fan base, you can imagine how hard it is for a newbie who's unknown, who's got no fan base and only one book! A year ago, there were fewer mid list authors in self-publishing. Today they are flocking by the thousands...

2. Rising competition from Traditional Publishers: at last, they are entering the digital market. Many are already lowering e-prices below the $13 or $14 level that they had seemed so unwilling to cross a few months ago. Also the infamous "agency model" is presently under attack by one or perhaps several class actions (against Apple). That means it's probably not going to last more than another two years. And then prices will be free to move downward - pushing close to the famous 99 cents-$2.99 price range so dear to self-pubbed newbies. Also, I might add, this is a price range not disdained by mid list authors either, as they seek to relaunch their back list in digital form. But with traditional publishers pressing down, the marketing magic of low prices will not work in the same smooth way!

More importantly, traditional publishers have at their disposal weapons in terms of marketing and branding that no newbie has. Things like access to reviewers of renown, major journals etc in short, they can call upon what some term "cachet", a quality attached to their authors and that attracts readers. They are the "gatekeepers of quality" and for a newbie that's hard to beat.

No doubt mid list authors are better placed to fight back, or even play the field on both sides.

Not so the newbie.

Sorry if this post is not gushing with wild optimism. I guess, I'm sort of issuing a warning: newbies beware! The self-publishing road has been opened up by the digital revolution - no doubt about that - but it's no longer the easy road it once was, even just one year ago!

Do let me know whether you agree with this or whether you think I'm too much of a pessimist!
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9.15.2011

Euro Crisis: Doomsday is Near!

Christmas Doomsday #SLImage by Alvi Halderman via FlickrEuro collapse is accelerating.

On  7 September, the German Constitutional Court upheld bailouts but put up parliamentary approval as a precondition, effectively tying Chancellor Merkel's hands...as if they needed to be tied! Here's one politician who notoriously hates to take decisions that might alienate supporters.

On 10 September, Mr. Stark, one of the German directors of the European Central Bank resigned, making it clear to all that the German central bank, the Bundesbank, disagreed with the ECB bond buying policy to save Spain and Italy. That makes for additional trouble as the bond buying is carried out by the national central banks participating in the ECB and not by the ECB itself.

On 13 September, Moody's downgraded a couple of French Banks (Crédit Agricole and SocGen), punishing them for holding Greek bonds. On 14 September, Italy barely passed its €54 billion austerity package but while there was a rebound in the market, long term prospects are not good: the bond market views Italy as "too big to bail out" and is likely to demand increasing interest rates (now already close to the 6% level considered unsustainable for Italy).

On September 16 and 17, the Euro Finance Ministers will meet in Poland and Geithner is scheduled to attend the meeting - an unusual appearance and a sure sign of the deep concern Americans have regarding the fate of the Euro.

But what can they do in the gathering storm? Probably not much. The hope is that they will turn the European Financial Stability Facility in a real European bank, able to issue Eurobonds, exactly as a central bank would. A vain hope given the continued German opposition to eurobonds, and small wonder: interest on German bonds is currently around 2% compared to over 15% for Greek bonds. 

And it is going to get worse before it gets better: in October, Greece will have to go back to the bond market to raise €8 billion to pay for wages and pensions - and face rising interests that will only achieve one thing: total destruction of the Greek economy. The latest quarterly figures show the Greek economy contracting by more than 7%...

Why Do we Have a Euro Crisis?

How could Europe sink into this mess? Are the economic fundamentals so bad? Of course not! Recession has affected Southern Europe but under normal conditions, you would have expected the German locomotive - with its healthy exports, especially to China - to pull up the whole continent.

Logically, when Germany sells more of its wonderful wares, from luxury cars to sophisticated electronic stuff, its unemployment goes down, its people have more money and start spending. Thanks to the Euro, trade is facilitated, money circulates. Germans buy Italian and French goods and go to Greece and Portugal on vacation, and all is well and good.

That did not happen.

Because the Germans did not start spending more. The average consumer in Germany is afraid. Afraid of losing that job, that anchor to salvation. So the average consumer doesn't consume, he or she is sitting on their money. The recession mentality is widespread, people retreat into their homes, delay expenditures. When Christine Lagarde was Finance Minister in France she repeatedly called on her German counterpart and Chancellor Merkel to try and jump start consumption in Germany - to no avail.

Instead of focusing on consumption, the Germans talked of deficit control.  For them, balanced budgets are a matter of ethics. They embedded the concept of balanced budgets into their constitution and now they pretend that the whole of Europe do likewise.

So far, the Spaniards have been the first to follow suit, and some other European countries may soon comply.

This is frightening. Because balancing the budget is not the solution.

Instead of addressing the real problem - recession and a slow-down in consumption - the whole of the European political scene is buzzing with one concept only: deficit control. What's needed are policies to address unemployment and jump start sluggish economies. But politicians never discuss them: stimulus has become a dirty word! God forbid that a government should come in aid of its poor and unemployed!

The Americans have at last put job creation at the center of their political debate. Not so Europe.


The Euro Mess: Whose Fault?

Politicians.

It always boils down to that: the wrong people are in power. Angela Merkel for one. She is only interested in her own political survival - the survival of Europe be damned! She was born in Eastern Germany, brought up under communism, she has no idea what Europe is for. All she hears is that her own party is in trouble and that the right is screaming against bailouts. For the Germans, all Southern Europeans are corrupt lazy bums, rascals and thieves. 

Considering that Germany was the main beneficiary of the Euro, this is preposterous.

The other person largely responsible for the mess is Jean-Claude Trichet, the head of the European Central Bank. From the start of the crisis, all he seemed concerned by was...price stability. Fighting inflation rather than defending the Euro. Honestly, the house in on fire, and this guy goes about watering the flowers in the garden! Fortunately he is leaving in October to be replaced by the Italian Draghi but that may be too late for Draghi to do much good.

Actually, the problem is larger than either of those two.

It's the WHOLE EUROPEAN POLITICAL CLASS that has lost not only the voters' confidence but any claim to being responsible and respectable.

They are crooks, no question about it. They are crooks in all of Southern Europe but even Northern Europe is not immune.

Italy: the Sick Man of Europe

In the 19 century, the Ottoman Empire was considered the "sick man of Europe". Today it is Italy.

Italy has suffered for a long time (since the 1970s) from political corruption, and more than Greece (which is but a small part of the Eurozone),  it is the situation in Italy that is the key factor precipitating the Euro crisis. Because Italy is not only "too big to bail out", it is actually the biggest European economy after Germany. Yes, you read that right. That's not a mistake: if you factor into the Italian national statistics the "submerged sector" (those entrepreneurs that don't pay taxes and flout work regulations), you find that Italy is larger than either France or the UK. That's because the submerged sector amounts to some 20 to 30 percent of GNP. 

So if Italy is in trouble, so is the Euro. So is Europe - and you better believe it, the problem will jump the Atlantic and spread to the US.

The debate about political corruption has been simmering for years in Italy, ever since a couple of journalists came out in 2007 with a hugely successful book La Casta, investigating political excesses. Wikipedia even has a list of Italian political scandals where Berlusconi figures prominently. And now the debate is exploding again.  A remarkable email is currently circulating among Italian citizens and has been picked up by several Italian bloggers (see here). Referring to an article published in the Espresso, it points to yet another disgusting political move on the part of Italian parliamentarians. In the middle of this painful recession and amidst the austerity talk and need to pass bills raising taxes and asking for sacrifices from all citizens, our dear Italian Parliamentarians have voted to...raise their monthly salary by €1,135 to a grand total of €19,150. The highest in Europe!!

But it doesn't stop there. Each deputy enjoys an astounding number of additional perks: a personal secretary paid over €4,000 a month; rental subsidy of €2,900 per month; function indemnity (indennità di carica) also raised from some €355 to €6,455; free air, rail and bus travel within the country; use of a free official car with driver; free cell phone, movie card, restaurant, health insurance etc etc plus a full pension after only 35 months of service in Parliament while hapless Italian citizens have to work 35 years on average to obtain a pension...Then, if an Italian deputy manages to be elected to the European Parliament, he or she is allowed to take in the full additional salary, which, not unsurprisingly is the highest among European parliamentarians.

How can people stand it?

Why the Politicians Have Gotten Away with It

The politicians have managed to avoid being booted out simply by distributing "goodies".

Goodies in the form of jobs in government and related institutions - at all levels, from national to regional to small towns and villages (yet another reason why political institutions have multiplied...). Goodies in the form of pensions including pensions for imaginary invalidity. Goodies in the form of a national health system where even the rich can get free treatment.

Citizens have their mouth full of goodies so it's no wonder they cannot cry in protest.

Unfortunately goodies distribution can go on only as long as the economy is growing. And for the moment, it has stalled. Balancing the budget is just applying a band aid to the wound. What's needed is to clean the wound and get Italy back to walking. But the austerity package that has just been passed does nothing of the kind. As Ms. Marcegaglia, the head of the Italian  industrial association said to the Sole 24 Ore, this package is nothing but taxes and will only have a "depressive" effect.   

How to Get Out of This Mess

The solution is well known and simple. It requires three policies:
(1) cut out the goodies
(2) take away political perks and reduce the number of parliamentarians
(3) adopt measures that will stimulate growth - any measure appropriate to a country's particular situation will do.

The Germans want the first two and never talk about the third. Almost nobody does, except for a few enlightened economists, including Mr. Paul Krugman in America and Mr. Adam Posen in the UK.

Meanwhile we are in the hands of vile, corrupt politicians whose only concern is to save the status quo. That wonderful status quo which enables them to take vacations on yachts and "enjoy" pretty girls (vide Dominique Strauss Kahn and Berlusconi).

What else can you expect but total collapse?

Okay, Italian politicians are among the worst offenders. But I'm sure you can come up with similar stories about your own politicians! Please do so in the comments below, it would be interesting to confront and share data!


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9.13.2011

Is Heredity Destiny? A Matter of Family Ghosts and Genetic Memory...

An overview of the structure of DNA.Structure of DNA Image via Wikipedia
Heredity haunts us and genetic memory is an intriguing notion: it is based on the idea that fragments of memory could be handed down to us through our DNA. Many of the things we know and think we have learned are actually innate

We are born not only with genetic physical traits, blue eyes and red hair like Grandma, but with specific knowledge and skills. 

We are not a virgin slate on which Education and Life draw our Character. Much of it (if not all) is already there from the start. 

Heredity is Destiny. 

Or is it?

How Much Do We Inherit from our Forebears? 

Are we the product of heredity? Are we the prisoners of our genes? Do DNA strands determine how we act, how we feel? That's a highly debatable question. And it gets the proponents of the virgin slate (usually educators) really angry: they are firm believers that what we are is the result of education or experience. 

I lean in another direction. I like to believe in free will. I like the notion that we can choose, that we are not beholden to either our genes or our education. That our life is in our hands. Each one of us is a unique individual and not the replica of some forgotten forebear, nor the product of principles taught by family and school! 

On the other hand, I can accept the notion that, as a minimum, we are predisposed towards certain values and skills. Some of us are naturally generous, others short-tempered and egotistical. Some have a talent for music, others are tone deaf. For instance, I'm a hopeless mathematician and a great doodler - always was.

I recently googled the notion and was amazed to read the results (no, I didn't read all 12 million of them!). The subject seems to inspire an astounding number of complex theories. There were obscure references to difficult notions such as Carl Jung's archetypes and Sheldrake's "morphic fields". 

Fortunately Wikipedia (ah, what would we do without it?) was reassuring on one point. It reported that scientists now generally consider genetic traits as "dispositional", that is they encode the way one reacts to stimuli, and they do not transfer the actual memory or experience. 

Phew, that's reassuring, isn't it? 


Some Strange Results of Genetic Memory Tests...

But tests have been carried out on animals and the results can be worrying, to say the least. 

There was this particular one that caught my attention. A first generation group of mice was taught how to get through a specific maze, and it took them weeks or months to learn. A year later, the offspring were made to go through the same maze, and it took them half the time. 

The next generation was even faster and several generations down the road, they managed it in 30 seconds, without ever having seen the maze before.

Scary! 

Are We Conditioned by our Family's Past?

So are childhood memories and teenage experiences not quite the maturing events we think they are? Is whatever we're good at something we've inherited from our forebears? Are we not responsible for our successes and also for our failures?

The notion of heredity implies that we are not responsible for our talents (or our shortcomings) anymore than for our blue (or brown) eyes. We just drew the lucky ticket in Life's Lottery - or the unlucky one!

I am not me, you are not you, we're both the results of genetic chance

The notion is terrifying...or is it? 

You could look at it another way. What if it only meant that we're part of one great family - the human family - past and present? But isn't that a little abstract? How can we handle this terrifying notion?

What's Your Opinion? 
 
I've worked on this notion for years - as a novelist. In fact, genetic inheritance is the issue at the heart of my trilogy  Fear of the PastFor the protagonist, meeting the ghosts of his forebears is a traumatizing coming-of-age experience. Unlike us (we don't normally meet the ghosts of all our forebears going back 900 years!), he is in the unique position of finding out exactly who he takes after. That's hard to recover from, particularly as he learns how his look-alike forebears lived, how they handled their work life, their loves, and in particular their failures...He eventually realizes he's been dealt the same genetic cards, but how he plays them is up to him. 

And I think that you'll agree that by the third book, the protagonist finally reaches maturity, not without having first gone through some harrowing experiences!

Take a look, I'd love to know what you think! Do you agree that heredity deals you your cards, but how you play the life game is up to you?

Book 1, FEAR OF THE PAST, is available on:

The sequel, RECLAIM THE PRESENT is due out shortly, and Book 3, REMEMBER THE FUTURE comes out in November. 






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9.09.2011

Ten Tips Plus One Step to Achieve Success in Blogging!

Lacrimae mundiLacrimae Mundi Image via Wikipedia
If you're starting a blog now, there's super advice around to make a success of it. You're among 50,000 people doing that every day (yes, that many!), so you really need help to stand out! See here for a couple of  the latest and best:
2. A beginner's Guide to Blogging: 10 Tips to put into Practice Right Away   

I'm not sure why the tips add up to ten, but in both cases, they make sense! Actually I've attached below an article by someone suggesting 12 tips...but here let me focus on just one essential step, but it's the KEY one!
When I started my blog two years ago, I wish I had known…I certainly wasted much time to figure out the gadgets, things like the share button, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and all the rest. Sure, they're important but there's one thing that tops them all.
What is it, you say? Simple:  blog in a “niche” !  Be generous with your expertise! Fill your blog with your expert content! Yeah!
Funny I should say that, right? Because that's precisely what I don’t do. 
My problem is that I’m interested in so many different things: books (yes, I’m a writer - see that book icon on the top left corner? That's mine!) but also politics, economics, cooking, contemporary art and classical painting - not necessarily in that order! That doesn't mean I'm an expert in all those things, just someone who likes to keep herself informed and has rather...strong likes and dislikes!
Go figure how you’re going to fit all that stuff into a single “niche”! 
What niche? There’s none. 
What online community should I belong to? Okay, you're right, I know what you're thinking: go and join several. I'm trying, but believe me that takes TIME! And I also want to write the sequel to my novel, and the day has only 24 hours (and help, I need to sleep too!). 
As for search engine optimization strategies, forget it. I'm not going to put a keyword in the title and the opening sentence just to get attention. If the keyword happens to be there, it's only because it makes sense! One day I'm here, writing for a certain set of readers (say, writers and bloggers), the next I'm somewhere else, writing for people interested in politics...or in cooking!  So I always end up disappointing somebody, sorry about that! I don't mean to annoy anyone. It's just that I can't stay interested very long in the same subject...
Hey, I like change! Just as I read books in all sorts of genres (provided the writing is good)! And in the news, everything interests me, from the latest archeological find to riots in Syria...
Obviously, I'll run into problems growing my blog! Only one thing’s certain: for success, do “niche” blogging! Do NOT follow my example!
Oh well, it's tough being me in this digital world! How do you manage? Are you also interested in all sorts of things? Do you like a far-flung blog such as mine or do you get annoyed when I suddenly turn to something that is of no interest to you? Conversely, do I succeed in interesting you in something you've never considered before? 

Let me know, so I can decide whether to retreat in a niche like a good doggie or continue to roam around freely!

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9.06.2011

If Greece Defaults, Is It The End of the World?

Holownik H8 (2)Tugboat at workImage via Wikipedia


Greek default = Euro crash = end of the world as we know it.

World trade collapses. China - universally considered as the bulwark against the West's recession -  grinds to a halt. The other BRIC countries (India, Russia, Brazil) too. And America, already on the brink with historically high unemployment, will tip back into recession.

That's what the media will have you believe. That's conventional wisdom.

The Latest Kink in the Bailout Process

Auditors from the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund unexpectedly left Greece last Friday, breaking off the fifth quarterly review they were conducting regarding Greece's compliance with the bailout - reviews  are a standard bailout requirement.

By Monday, the markets, jittery as always, came crashing down, losing an average 4% across the globe. Yet all the auditors had was a banal dispute over how the Greek Government intends to meet its deficit targets. It seems they'll be back by mid-September, by which time the Greek Government should have prepared a note for them clarifying its position.

A New Chapter in the Great Recession?

In the gathering gloom about the Euro's future and the conviction that measures to handle the debt  (any country's debt, really, but the Greek debt in particular) will cause a deep recession, let's consider the unthinkable: a full Greek default.

Will that be a new chapter in the on-going Great Recession?

The Americans have clung to the idea that they are into a (slow) recovery (that produces no new jobs), and that things will turn out okay in the end provided the world's economy is not rocked by a Euro crash.

That's conventional wisdom too.

Let me don my Pessimist's Hat: I'm convinced we are not out of the woods.

The American so-called recovery is just a bubble on the surface of an on-going Great Recession.

The proof? Unemployment is bad in the US and growing, no question about it,and it is bad everywhere else too. It is abysmal in Spain and Greece, but the rest of Europe is suffering too, with one exception: Germany.  And China of course.

But Germany's exports have just begun to slow down again and even China is riding rough waters, what with its imminent real estate bubble that could burst anytime and rising wage demands on the part of Chinese workers that are slowly squeezing China's trade advantage.

So the two world economic tugboats are definitely slowing down and coming into rough waters, if I may be permitted the metaphor.

Let me ask you, is this the time for our politicians to concentrate on controlling deficits when the real problem at hand is lack of growth and unemployment?

When Controlling Deficits Means Killing Growth and Letting Unemployment Increase

No, we're not out of the woods. By a long shot. We are right in the middle of them. European politicians - along with the Republican party in the US that has successfully shackled Obama so far -  seem bent on taking every political decisions they can think of to make matters worse.

Needless to say,  Cameron and Osborne's drastic cure for Britain that has instantly slowed UK growth and there's no need to go further into this here: it's obvious that austerity measures in Britain can only have the effect of discouraging growth.  The stats are in to prove it.  And, as we've seen recently with the wild rampage of disgruntled youth in London and other cities, austerity, even just the prospect of it, can cause unusual social tension.

Likewise Angela Merkel has been irresponsibly late in bailing out Greece, only agreeing reluctantly and at the very last minute to do something (half) constructive.

Result? The Greek bailout is now running into trouble, My only consolation is that Merkel is also politically in trouble, as shown by the poor showing of her party at the latest regional elections. This is a woman who has absolutely no understanding of economics and no European vision at all.

The Finns too are showing a total lack of European vision: they want collateral from the Greek Government to cover any funds they might provide to the bailout effort!!! That obviously defeats the purpose.

Actually, the Finns are only expected to provide 2% of the total (small country, small input). But one can't help but wonder about them! The trouble is they've set a bad example: other Eurozone countries have jumped into the fray, including countries that ought to know better like Austria, shamelessly clamoring for a guarantee.


Thinking the Unthinkable: Go Ahead, Greece, and Default

What happens if Greece defaults? Nothing.

Yes, you read that right. Well, nothing in the sense that it won't be the end of the world, and may well signal a new beginning for Greece, finally free of its strangling debt.

Yes, I know, many of you will be surprised that I write something like this, after having so often explained that the way to defend the Euro is to avoid a Greek default.

Let me be clear: I am not saying Greece should come out of the Euro. I'm only saying that a controlled default is the only way out for Greece. To wipe out its debt and start anew on the path to growth.

Actually, it's already in controlled default mode.

In the latest bailout process, private investors in Greek bonds are asked to accept a bond swap taking a thirty percent cut or thereabouts. And the cut is a lot less painful than the one that is already operating in the markets where Greek bonds are trading at nearly half their value. Also, Greece should make clear what policies it will pursue to re-awaken growth.

The problem is: so far, all we've heard are measures aimed at righting the deficit.  More taxes, a higher VAT destined to strangle Greek tourism, and a shameful garage sales of the crown jewels - I mean the best of State-owned property: how can anyone hope to sell them at a correct price in these recession times?

Surely, this is not the way out of the recession!

But let's consider for the moment a careful, controlled Greek default.

That means immediate relief on the debt front. Just like Iceland: so much has been written about how lucky Iceland was not to be in the Euro because it could devalue and start afresh. And it has just done that: its economy is not exactly roaring but it is clearly on the way to recovery.

If Greece defaults but stays in the Euro, what will happen? Euro devaluation? Yes, a little bit, and it has already happened: the Euro trades lower against the dollar, in spite of the bad employment news out of the US. Probably this downward slide would continue. The Euro might go down to trading at 1.25 against the dollar, or even lower.

Is a weaker Euro bad for the Eurozone economy? Not at all, it would help European exports, chief among them the German ones that have just stalled.

The German tugboat would start chugging again. Much to the benefit of all its European partners (whose exports would also improve), including Greece.

Let's not forget, please, that the Euro is the second reserve currency in the world after the US dollar. The Euro cannot and is not about to disappear.  True, it is badly managed and it walks on one leg only (the European Central Bank) and it lacks its second leg in the form of a federal European Treasury to carry out fiscal measures. Such a Treasury, modeled after the American one, is urgently needed, and that too is a question our politicians should address.

But let me repeat: this has to be a controlled default accompanied by measures aimed at reviving growth and employment.

That is what we should all talk about: how to revive economic growth and create new jobs. Obama is to address Congress next Thursday 8 September, and it will be interesting to hear what he has to propose to stimulate growth and employment in the US. Hopefully, some of his proposals will be heard and followed by the European political class - a class that has been remarkably deaf and dumb on economic issues, in spite of what the best economists of our times are saying, all of them getting hoarse in the attempt to draw their attention to the real problems that beset all of us: slow growth and unemployment, not deficits! I'm getting hoarse too!

Why Keynes Is Neither Irrelevant Nor and Idiot

Every time an economist talks about fighting recession with government intervention in the economy - things like investing in infrastructure, the most basic of Keynesian recipes (and surely the US needs some investment to renew its crumbling infrastructure?) - he is accused of being a Keynesian, as if this were an irremediable shortcoming. If you come forward with a Keynesian recipe to cure our economic ills, you're considered an idiot. You're told Keynesian recipes lead to Big Government, and Big Government is Bad.

Why this extraordinary black and white or cowboys-and-indians vision of the economy?

Why should Big Government be bad in a democratic society that has parliaments to control government?

Big Government is needed in recession times because it is the only economic agent that can be counted on to invest and create jobs. Private agents - businessmen and investors - are too afraid to invest: they don't see any quick returns in recessionary times, so they stay put. They sit on their cash. And that's exactly what the Big American Corporations have been doing since the start of the Great Recession. Sitting on their cash. And avoid paying taxes. And getting the media (Murdoch with his Fox News first among them) to support their Small Government/No Taxes/No Budget Deficit position.

That position is based on a hugely simplistic argument: it's bad for a family to be in debt, right? So it is likewise bad for a country. Future generations will have to pay for our (debt) sins, if we don't put our house in order! This argument calling in the sorry fate of our children and grand-children is really aggravating. Of course, no one wants to willfully hurt one's children. So should we really pull in our belts and go full blast for deficit control? Will that solve the problem of slow growth and unemployment?

Actually History teaches us otherwise.

The Lesson of History: Default Can Have a Positive Outcome!

Not just in Iceland. In the United States too!

Yes, the United States! This is not a typo on my part. I mean the United States, the top economy in the world, the country whose currency forms the basis of international trade. Sure, it happened a long time ago, in 1841, when the Second United States Bank defaulted. It was, to all intents and purposes, a Central Bank default. And it hurt like hell the British investors who had bet on American industrial development and had financed the construction of the first big American railroads. They were left with precisely nothing in their hands!

But America, freed from the weight of a huge debt, started growing again - all through the rest of the 19th century, and of course, the rest is History. And yet, if you examine the history of banking in the United States during this whole period when the great American economic might was being born, you'll be struck by the instability of the banking system (banks didn't last longer than 5 years on average) and more generally, the political mess and uncertainty in which the system operated. Worse than the Euro!

So why can't Greece - and Europe - follow the American example?

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