Writers' Chat with Magda Olchawska on Filmmaking and Writing

Differences, Similarities and Where Filmmaking is Headed

Literature has been radically changed by filmmaking.  Before the advent of films, novels were full of detailed descriptions and back stories. The great writers of the 19th century, from Dickens to Tolstoy are prime examples of this. No more. Successful novels nowadays are all based on the "show, don't tell" rule that implies a minimum of description and a maximum of dialogue and action. 

Today, I'm having an unusual writers' chat about filmmaking with Magda Olchawska who's that rare bird: both a writer and a filmmaker.  Here she is, smiling in her garden:

Magda has directed The Man with the Spying Glass and 9mm, both award-winning short films and some of her film work can be viewed on her website:  www.magdaolchawska.com. Plus she is the author of Mikolay & Julia Adventures series for children, available on Amazon  with more books scheduled to come out in March. Magda's next film is about human trafficking and how this illegal “business” profits not only criminals but also people in the public eye (this is a work of fiction: there are no similarities to any real life characters). The film will commence shooting in May 2012 and will be available at the beginning of 2013.

So here’s our chat, published simultaneously on our respective blogs:

Claude: To write a novel takes very little investment beyond buying a computer and linking up on Internet. My biggest effort so far has been to set up a blog, trying to write two posts per week - a daunting challenge as it takes time away from creative writing. Though blogging is arguably a good exercise for a writer, keeping her nimble with the writing pen. As a film maker, life is different. You are immediately confronted with the challenge of raising the necessary funds before you can even think about starting to shoot the first scene. What has been your experience in this regard?

Magda: You are absolutely right. Filmmaking is a very expensive, time consuming and energy consuming activity. Pretty often filmmakers don’t see their finished film for two years, if not more. It’s a long process to ready a script, then shoot it and edit the whole thing. As a writer you are pretty much on your own. When you are making a movie, you have to deal with a bunch of different people. Harrowing work but the thrill of seeing your movie up on a big screen is indescribable.

Claude: How do you get the funding you need?

Magda: At the moment there are  two ways of getting funding for a movie. Investment (popular in US) or some sort of Film Institute funded production (popular in Europe). Many established filmmakers have access to either investors or money from several film institutes across Europe.

Claude: But what about young film makers starting out like you?

Magda: Oh, most of us spend our own money! Or we have to run campaigns on crowds funding websites such as Indie GoGo or Kickstarter. A lot of fantastic movies have been made through crowdfunding. Movies that otherwise wouldn’t have a slightest chance of being produced neither in Europe or US.
I’m going to run a campaign for my new movie on Indie GoGo as well.

Claude: Why Indie GoGo rather than Kickstarter? Why not both?

Magda: It’s simple as a European I can’t run a campaign on Kickstarter. Kickstarter is only for US citizens. Indie Go Go is more flexible.

Claude: What other advice do you have for young filmmakers?

Magda: At the moment, in my opinion, with such an easy access to any kind of equipment, if someone wants to be a filmmaker they should just make movies and practice.

Claude: Maybe work for an established film director? How do you feel about that? Have you ever worked for someone like that – someone important in the filmmaking industry?

Magda: I never worked for anyone important in the industry. If you get the opportunity to do it you should. However I wouldn’t  waist time chasing those opportunities.

Claude: Don’t you have to build up contacts in the industry – go to film festivals? I know that as writers we all try – within the limits of our budgets – to attend writers’ conferences …

Magda: Yes, I go to a lot of film festivals. I do enjoy film festivals ‘cos they’re real celebrations of film and filmmakers, especially festivals in USA. I think European festivals could learn a thing or two from their friends across the pond.

Claude: Like what? What is it that Europeans could do better at their film festivals?

Magda: Make a “big fuss” about filmmakers attending the festival (please do appreciate us and our films: without our hard work you wouldn’t have a festival) , treat us better and don’t ask us to pay for festival passes. The most filmmakers friendly festival I’ve been to is the Newport Beach Film Festival. It also would be nice if European festivals concentrated a bit more on European films and not limit themselves to those made by established filmmakers.

Claude: Wow, life for a young filmmaker sounds harder than for an aspiring writer! What about inviting writers to film festivals and maybe film makers to writers’ conferences? Do you think that would work? Would it provide some needed cross fertilization between the two industries?

Magda: This is a brilliant idea. I think it could make writers & filmmakers life much easier.

Claude: Yes, I’ve always felt bridges should be built between literature and filmmaking – institutional bridges that would help draw attention to new books that are highly “filmable” and that would give those writers with the necessary visual imagination a chance to work on film scripts. But tell me, Magda, I’m curious: since you're both a writer and a filmmaker, how does your writing impact your film making? I know that when I write, I literally "see" the story unfold in front of my mind's eye and try to write - at least the first draft - as fast as I can to keep up with the action. Do you feel the same way about writing or do you view it is a totally different activity from film making? Do you write you own scripts or do you use others and get a team together to write the film? In your experience, what works best?

Magda: I write my own scripts. I have to say that writing has chosen me. While writing, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a story, a book or a script, I see everything in my mind. Just like you do. However when it comes to filmmaking seeing and writing and executing afterwards on the set is a totally different story. Each scene is going to be shown from various angles and you don’t write this in a script. But I have to think about this before I make a movie. Movies are made by  large teams of people and each person brings something different to the whole experience.

Claude: So what is your job as a film director?

Magda: My job is to give everyone instruction and tell them, which way we are all going so we take the written words and turn them into a picture. When I’m on a set I’m a 100 % filmmaker but off the set I’m more of a writer than a filmmaker.

Claude: Film making involves a lot of people beyond the script writers. That's very different from a writer's life. For us writers, life is lived largely in isolation, in our ivory towers dreaming up novels. I know because that's what I do and that's what I like best about writing: the time I have alone in front of my computer, time to let my imagination go. That of course doesn't make it any easier for me to change gears and start promoting my books: a writer is uniquely unprepared to do marketing. But a film maker like you, Magda, has to interact with all sorts of people on a daily basis or the film doesn't get done and doesn't get distributed! Does this constant interaction with people help you bring your film to a happy conclusion or is it a cause of delays? How do you survive the film maker's life as a writer?

Magda: I do spend a lot of time in isolation, just writing and coming up with the stories. However once the pre-production period begins (this is the time when all the important stuff is being done such as getting actors and crew and secure all the equipment so we can go into the production) I have no time for writing and spend most of my time on the phone or sorting out stuff I didn’t think of while I was writing.

Claude: With the digital revolution, the writer’s life has been radically changed. All of us, indie writers but traditionally published writers too, are pushed into the driver’s seat when it comes to marketing. Willy-nilly, book promotion eats up our writing time.  Any similar change in filmmaking?

Magda: The times have changed for indie filmmakers as well and just like writers we need to promote and distribute our own movies.  The promotion of a movie begins when the pre-production begins. The big studios start promoting some of their movies way before they even know who is going to make it or star in it. Just to make the general public aware of the upcoming movie.

Claude: That’s amazing, that means starting the promotion at least two years ahead! As a writer you start promoting only once the book is published…But do indie filmmakers like you do the same?

Magda: We do. With my last short film I spent a year promoting and screening it at various film festivals. With feature films filmmakers often spend 2-3 years promoting the movie. You spend a year making the movie, then another two years promoting it. To have any kind of balance and sanity (three or more years on a project can drive anyone insane) filmmakers do other stuff too. I started writing.

Claude: Magda, I'd like to explore with you for a moment the content of films. Movies are often based on best-selling novels - for example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, a film that was made several decades after the novel had come out and become a cult book or Stieg Larsson's immensely successful Millenium trilogy. The latter inspired film makers twice: in Sweden an early version was made, followed now by a big Hollywood remake. Indeed, remakes abound in movie-making. Yet, at the same time, movies can be very innovative and sometimes make you feel they are ahead of literature. For example, there have been of late a series of films featuring older people, retirees that face challenges in their second life - a subject often played out in a humorous way. Films featuring old actors are making it to top rankings in the box office: for example, Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (both 76), Helen Mirren (65), Meryl Streep (62) Sylvester Stallone (64), Liam Neeson (58) and I'm sure you can think of many others. Plots are focused on the mature (for example the current hugely successful Margaret Thatcher's biopic) or the retired and aging, like the 2010 hit "RED" which stands for "retired and extremely dangerous". That's something new, an area so far largely unexplored by novelists. We have a huge wave of Young Adult Literature, we are still waiting for a Baby Boomer Literature! Actually that’s what my next novel, A Hook in the Sky, is going to be: a BB novel!

Magda: A BB novel? Never heard of that!

Claude:  Yes, a Baby Boomer novel! My protagonist is just retired and looking for what to do with his second life while his marriage collapses. I think a lot can happen in the last stage of life – which lasts now longer than ever before and with more people than ever entering that stage. It could be the next wave in novel writing! What in your view, Magda, is the next big wave of movies? Where is the next big audience likely to come from? I'm thinking of how Hollywood is trying to get baby boomers back in the movie theatre, producing films to their taste. "True Grit", the "King's Speech", "The Fighter", "Black Swan", "The Social Network" have all been surprise hits at the box office and reaped Oscars. As the New York Times put it (see article in NYT, Feb 25, 2011), they've become hits "based on wit and storytelling, not special effects". So much for 3D! What is certain however is that pointless gore and violence and wild, unrealistic flings of fancy are gone. What is your opinion, Magda, where is film-making headed? What sort of film would you like to make, assuming you had endless pots of money at your disposal?

Magda: In my opinion there is room and audience for both “True Grit”, which I loved and also “Fast & Furious”, which I didn’t see. "The King's Speech", "The Fighter", "Black Swan" are considered independent movies because they weren’t made by any of the big studios. The big studios still think that the cinema audience is 16-25 years old. So I expect many more indie movies on bigger budget than a shoe string are going to be made.

Claude: But what about you? What kind of movie do you want to make and why?

Magda: I want to make challenging movies that will make a difference in human life. Adapting a well-known novel is an easy option for Hollywood as they already have an audience for certain films such as “The Hunger Games” or “Harry Potter”. Hollywood is more than certain to see the books’ fans in the theaters, eager to spend their money on tickets and popcorn. Even if it is just to confront their expectations. But in general a film is art as much as a book is.

Claude: Sure, movies are the 7th Art. But how do you decide what is art?

Magda: Depends on tastes of course. Some people prefer “Twilight” and others choose  Dostoyevsky.

As an audience member I do hope to see more challenging movies with actors not only in their teens but also mature actors, especially women. For I reckon this is another problem Hollywood doesn’t know how to deal with. Europe is a bit better when it comes to ageing actresses and writing scripts for them. But still it’s far from I would expect.

Claude: Let me move to another question. There's a movement in Poland as well as in many countries in the East European region, to explore the recent past and try to come to terms with the Communist inheritance, essentially to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes and falling back into non-democratic authoritarian system. Books and films are beginning to come out about this. What is your take on this? Would you consider exploring this theme either as a writer or as a film maker or both?

Magda: Well, more as a writer than a filmmaker. I was born in 1979, I was a kid but I still vividly remember the tanks on the streets and constant shortage of food. Yes, it’s true that a lot has been said, written and turned into a movie. I don’t think we should ever forget this part of our dark history.  However, I think that a lot of people my age have different worries and I’m not trying to be disrespectful to anyone and to the victims of the communism in any country.

Claude: Successful films have been made mostly in Germany so far (about the East German experience) but also in Poland. According to an article I read in the New York Times, there’s an on-going revival of interest in the past under the impulse of the newly established Institute of National Remembrance. They have a pretty big budget – some $65 million says the NYT – and the Institute has recently financed a “remembrance” film.

Magda: Yes, I hear what you’re saying. But the Institute of National Remembrance, which in Poland has been and still is used as a political tool, isn’t very much respected, at least not in the part of Poland I was born and brought up. I was born in Wroclaw. This part of Europe was German for 500 years and Wroclaw was one of the very last cities defended furiously during the World War II by the Germans. The city was destroyed by both the Germans and the Soviets who were planning to flatten the whole city but eventually “only” did 70% in. During communism, Wroclaw citizens were often severely punished for having been “German” in the past, as if it were their fault.  People in Wroclaw are a mixture of German, Polish, Chech and also Ukrainian culture. They are very independent in their thinking. When I hear the Institute is spending $65 million,  I get seriously pissed off  because Poland can’t afford that at the moment.

Claude: It’s a lot of money for cultural activities that could be better defined…

Magda:  I would rather see the money going towards educating young people, running proper cultural centers and keeping the children hospitals open, not closing them down. It is pretty difficult to get to the hospital if you don’t know the right people. The average salary in Poland is 800 EURO (this are just statistics, if people have 400 EURO it’s considered a lot) and everything in Poland is about three times as expensive as in Germany or the UK. My mom, after 30 years of work, is entitled to a 100 EURO pension! So the country called Poland in the middle of Europe isn’t as wonderful as our politicians would like Europe or the USA to believe.

Claude: This is terrible!

Magda: Young, educated people are still leaving the country for they don’t see a bright future for themselves or their children.

Claude: Same dreadful situation in Greece: the young are leaving to seek out jobs abroad…

Magda: So to answer your question. Communism was horrible and it destroyed people and the country as a whole. I guess Poland will have to struggle with the communist inheritance for generations. But instead of talking about the past over and over again I would rather talk about the future and think how we can make Poland and Europe a better place. We can’t be constantly defined by our past.

Claude: I agree, let’s think about the future. Let’s make Europe a better place for everyone, Poland included. And Greece included too. Instead of remembering the past, let’s remember the future…Yes, I know, I see the look in your eyes: that’s the title of Part 3 of my novel Fear of the Past. Indeed, that’s what I intended it to mean: whatever we do today determines the kind of future we’ll get. By the way, I’m curious, what is the title of your next film? Dealing as it does with human trafficking, how will you express that in the title?

Magda: The title of my film is “Anna and Modern Day Slavery”

Claude: Thanks for the chat, Magda, it’s been an eye-opener for me. Pity this is only a virtual chat and that you’re in Wroclaw and I’m in Rome or we’d go out and have a pasta and a bottle of wine and drink to the future of Europe!

Magda: I’m with you on that. Let’s move on and build a better future for a strong united Europe. We shouldn’t think about our differences but what unites us. United we are strong! And I’d also like to thank you so much Claude for this lovely chat. I’ve learnt a lot and you always keep me informed with the current affairs. I would love pasta and a bottle of good wine or maybe lovely coffee somewhere in wonderful Vienna!

Claude: Vienna? Why not, great! That’s the beauty of Europe, isn’t it, all that good food and cheer!

My thanks go to Magda for participating in this chat and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did! By now, I'm sure you're curious to see her film work. 

Here's a link to one of her short films, the one called "9 mm": click here

There's a trailer but to see the film, you have to sign up for her newsletter (the film is very short: about 8 minutes). Do it and don't worry, she won't spam you with her newsletter, because it's really worth seeing the film as a whole. Very atmospheric, a beautiful love story (in Polish with sub-titles) not to be missed!

Below, a picture of Magda at the beach (looks cold!): once you've seen her film, you'll understand why she likes this kind of landscape...

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Self-Publishing in the Digital Age: How the Wrong Marketing can Kill Your Book

English: From the public domain book, "Th...Dickens: the Myth. He achieved Eternal Fame with his Pickwick Papers published one chapter at a time in a monthly magazine (Image via Wikipedia) Don't we all wish we could duplicate that!

Newbies beware!  The wrong marketing strategy can kill your book. Self-publishing is not all roses and the learning curve is very, very steep.  We've all heard that the DIY road to publishing is just a matter of hard work: write a great book, produce it professionally and sell it like a marketing guru! Then run laughing to the bank and watch your account swell and swell, right? All you need to be is a Digital Age Dickens!

Wrong! It's not that easy. Of course not all of us are Dickens. But just look at a situation where in principle you, the author, have everything under control:
1. You've written a great book. It's in top shape, editing-wise and content-wise, real bestseller stuff: check. 
2. You've converted the files to digital professionally and got a great book cover (you've heard that's important even in the digital world): check.
3. You've got a blog going and a reasonable presence on Internet, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and even in reading communities like Goodreads: check.
4. Publish, market and win fame!

Not so fast. Consider my experience.  I think (but perhaps I delude myself) that I'm an entrepreneurial, risk-taking individual. So after a couple of years of queries leading me nowhere - querying is hell and it sure looks like a lottery! You get a distinct impression that agents don't go past the first five words - I decided to take the big jump into digital self-publishing. I went to BookBaby for file conversion and putting the titles on my book (just the title because I'm a painter and did the illustration), figuring they were the professionals and I wasn't. That was my first mistake. It meant I put someone between me and Amazon (to the extent that I can't get my sales number directly!) so I lost right there a big piece of control.

More traps opened up under my feet as I tried to market my book. I figured I should (1) write a trilogy because that's what was selling (vide Amanda Hocking's Trylle Trilogy) and (2) classify my book in a "hot" genre, and of course like everyone and his uncle I picked YA. 

Nine months later (meaning now) I realized the mistakes I'd made. My book, sure, is a coming of age story but it doesn't fit the YA audience strictly defined (meaning 14-18 years old). People likely to enjoy my book are adults, mature types, not young adults unless you define them as being between the age of 18 and 25. Then I compounded the mistakes by coming out with the three books at three months' intervals! I should have waited to finish all three and then uploaded them on that virtual shelf within maximum a month's time between each - just like Dickens came out with his Pickwick Papers a chapter at a time, yes, but on a monthly basis (since he published them in a monthly magazine).

So now I have to take big decisions: should my book Fear of the Past be considered a trilogy or a novel? Is it YA or literary? 

OK, after a lot of anxious self-searching and questioning, here's the verdict: it's a novel and not a trilogy. Because if you stop at the first book you only get one third of the story arc: the protagonist comes of age only in the third book. Ergo, call Fear of the Past a novel. That to me was a compelling reason to retitle the book and adjust the cover accordingly:

And yes, it's more literary than YA...I'm humbled by this because classifying my own work as literary sounds like I'm immodestly shooting for the stars. But believe me, I don't delude myself into thinking I'm another Dickens. Of course, I'm not. But the book doesn't fit any genre (it's historical, paranormal, romance, techno-thriller, coming-of-age...). Not only that, but it is experimental in at least two ways: in part 1 (or book 1) Forget the Past, it includes playwriting techniques along with standard novel writing (playlets are inserted right in the text); in part 2 (or book 2) Reclaim the Present, it moves between two points of views both written in the first person because when the protagonist is trapped in the mind of his great-great-grandfather, the world around them is seen from two different first person points of views, quite a feat to pull off without confusing the reader!  

Lesson in all this? The learning curve is so steep that one can make very serious book packaging/marketing mistakes and that's where the experience of a good agent could be really helpful...I know that I now regret I never had the ear of a friendly, experienced agent. She could have helped me and prevented me from mis-marketing my book and wasting time. Because even those who dare to self-publish need advice!

Alan Rinzler in his excellent blog, the Book Deal, recently investigated the question with 4 major literary agents: Candice Fuhrman, Andrea Brown, Andrea Hurst and Bonnie Solow. This is a post you want to read. It gives the point of view of agents on the question and the conclusion is inescapable: literary agents still act as "gatekeepers" for authors seeking traditional deals. They have a role as long as publishers are paying advances and publishing books, but also - and this is the novelty - as advisers to self-published authors: they can help with the editing and even the publishing process. This latter activity has raised some eyebrows: many have argued that was going against their basic agent role as go-between the author and publisher. 

But who ever said that a literary agent had to be just a go-between? I believe agents in this new digital age would have a very real role as publishing consultant/adviser. What is your take on this? I'd love to hear your views and if you've made marketing mistakes like I have, please share and let us know what you've learned!

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When Malware Hits Your Blog, Don't Panic! This is What You Can Do

When malware hits your blog, a nasty warning sign appears telling your readers to stay away from your site. It just happened to me and I confess I panicked!

Here's the warning:

Frightening, isn't it?

The warning is still appearing today (February 21) for those of you who use Google Chrome as a browser - on other browsers (like Firefox) it doesn't appear.

I immediately checked what could be done, followed Google's directions and they verified that there was no longer any malware present on my site.


I thought I'd share my experience with you so that the same thing doesn't happen to you.

First, as mentioned in the warning, you want to stay away from the incriminated site: www.idealog.com.

Second, don't panic and follow Google's directions to diagnose the problem and remove the malware. Click into the warning sign and indicate you are the owner of the site. That will direct you to a webmaster page where you'll be asked by Google to prove that you are indeed the owner. That can be a little tricky, there are several ways to do this and I had to try each one out until I found the one that worked for me (it involved pasting a metatag provided by Google into my site's HTLM). Sounds complicated but it really isn't.

The diagnostic was then run on my site and it was determined that no malware was present on it. So I didn't need to proceed with the steps to remove it but should you need to do it, even that is easy to do following their very clear directions. I also did a quick check to find what other sites might be helpful in case of malware, and this is one that looks very informative: securelist.com

But for me, the damage was done...In one day I lost about half my regular traffic! Of course, readers run away, rightly scared, and I can understand that.

Yet, recently my traffic had really shot up and I was so pleased... I had been nominated as a candidate for the Kreativ Blogger Award by author Emma Calin whose witty blog is really worth following. And then I was nominated to the Versatile Blogger Award by Kelley on her attractive Call Me Bookish blog. Kelley is very active: she reviews books, writes for fun and produces educational app content for @BallpointNews... All my heartfelt thanks go to my wonderful blogger friends who nominated me!

By the rules governing the Awards, I was supposed to respond by revealing secrets about myself, things that no one on Internet knew about me...7 secrets for each award, 14 in total (or perhaps more, I lost count)! Honestly, now that I've been hit by this cyber attack I feel like the proverbial turtle, pulling my head and arms in my shell... But now, you know something about me that you probably never suspected: that I really hurt when something like this happens! That's because I am very attached to you my readers...

How long will it take my blog to recover? I don't know, but I count on you all to come back and do tell me that you like me, even if I don't reveal dozens of secrets about myself!

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The Americans Have a Tea Party, the Europeans a Beer Party: Angela Merkel's!

A peculiarity of our times: extremist political ideologies. They used to rise mostly on the left (Hitler and Mussolini were both socialists). Now they emerge on the right. The Americans have a Tea Party, the Europeans have a Beer Party, with Angela Merkel calling the shots.

Both parties are totally convinced they're right and everybody else is wrong. Both have one goal in mind: curb the role of government.

Who's behind the European Beer Party? Angela Merkel, of course. The European press is full of her - even staid financial newspapers like the Italian Sole 24 Ore. Here's their cover picture of their week-end magazine IL (it came out last Saturday):

Note the subtitle: MUTTER MUTLOS: "Mother Without Courage". For some Germans, she's too soft on fellow Europeans - the reason why she's taken on the battle against bailing out the Euro: she has no intentions of losing her political majority. Indeed, a majority of Germans (some 60%) see no reason why they should bailout Greece or anybody for that matter - forgetting that all these Southern Europeans they despise are major markets (correction here: some German insustrialists do know this and are not all that happy with Merkel). Consider the spread of Germany over Europe. Ten million Germans go to Spain every year for their vacation. German Deutsche Telekom controls the Greek telephone company and German Fraport has acquired 55% of Athens airport.Over 1,400 German enterprises are present on the Italian market, selling for a total €73 billion. Germany holds €123,5 billion of the French public debt.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea: European economies are deeply interlinked. The Euro is just a reflection of that inter-linkage - no, not a reflection, it's more than that. It makes exchange and trade easier, faster and less costly. Just like the American dollar links big, rich states like Texas or California with small, poor states like West Virginia or Mississippi. Which is why the German idea that the Euro was a non starter because it linked countries as diverse as Germany and Greece is plain wrong. Yet some important German intellectuals like the writer and poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger hold just that view! How can they?

It is astonishing how ignorant people are when it comes to economics. And that ignorance is reflected in the politicians they elect. Look more closely at Merkel, here's another amazing photo (still from IL Magazine):

She looks so young, doesn't she? She looks just like an East German University student! But she was actually much older on that picture, already 38. It was taken in May 1992, some 20 years ago, when she had just been appointed by Helmut Kohl as his Minister for Women and Youth. Note the somber, serious look:  there's the shadow of the Soviet Empire on that face - East German bureaucratic Kultur. There's also a hint of Lutheran austerity. Her father was a Lutheran minister, and no doubt her mother who taught Latin was a very serious person too.

But look closely at her eyes:

Do you see any light in them? Nothing? Grim determination, yes. Imagination? Mmmm, no comment. It should come as no surprise that she studied (and majored) in physical chemistry...numbers, formulas, no knowledge of human nature or history. Not exactly the best preparation to understand economics...

Have Angela Merkel's eyes improved with time? Let's take a look at them up close (still using the IL Magazine cover image):

Bright blue! Her eyes look more vivacious, don't they? But look again: this photo was very carefully taken, with two lights on the left and right of her face, to give it balance. The lights reflect in the eyes - two bright spots on the right and left of the pupil - thus ensuring that special brilliance. But if you move down to the mouth, you see she's not smiling:

There's a grim set to her lips and small wonder. Even her best friends misbehave, like the President of Germany, Christian Wulff, engulfed in a corruption scandal. No, the message is clear. Toe the line, kiddies, behave! Your government budget is like your household budget: it has to balance out, for the individual: every month, for the government: every year!

I've written elsewhere that the two kinds of budget are not identical, far from it. The public budget belongs to a community not a single individual family and it has to be balanced over time, not every year. When I say "over time", I mean the medium to long term, at least 10 years. Anything else makes no sense at all.

Not so for the European Beer Party. It has embraced the German ideology of balanced budgets and taken Greece as an emblematic example of immoral profligacy and corrupt government practices based on clientelism and privilege. Austerity is not just the Beer Party's key slogan. It is a comprehensive set of measures to balance budgets and use as a bludgeon to whip not only Greece but all wayward Euro-zone members and force them to toe the line of fiscal discipline.

The most recent and biggest Beer Party victory came when 24 EU members at the last Euro Summit agreed to write the principle of balanced budgets into their constitution (the UK is famously among those who have opted out).

The Beer Party is playing a tough game: last Sunday (February 12), while the street was up in arms, the Greek Parliament voted austerity measures at the behest of the European Union, IMF and European Central Bank. The Greeks were told that if they didn't vote, they wouldn't get their €130billion bailout in time to avoid default and that the European Finance Ministers would hold a meeting Wednesday (February 15) to decide on it.

Wednesday came and went and no decisions. Now the Greeks are told that a decision would come at the next Eurogroup meeting on Monday February 20... Maybe so, maybe not. This is disgusting brinkmanship at the expense of Greece whose economy has shrunk since the crisis started by some 15% and whose unemployment rate has shot up steadily, now hovering around 20% and twice that level for the young. Indeed, young Greeks are trying to flee Greece and find jobs abroad if they can...

In times of recession and economic contraction, austerity is a recipe for disaster. In Greece's case, the numbers are now in to prove it: as the economy contracts, tax revenues are down and the deficit grows bigger. At this rate, the debt problem will never be solved. Incidentally, things aren't going much better for Ireland or Portugal...

What's needed is economic growth: without measures to restore growth, the spiral can only accelerate down. Fortunately there's one politician in Europe who keeps saying that, and it's Italy's Prime Minister Monti. He's the only one who makes sense against Merkel's austerity obsession - but then he's not a politician, he's an economist and a technocrat...

This said, there's little doubt that Southern Europe is paying the price of wanting to have its cake and eat it too. Tax evasion and the "submerged economy" are so large that there's not a chance to ever balance the budget without cutting into the practices of bloating the bureaucracy to satisfy nepotism, of padding public pension funds, multiplying fake invalidity payments, handing out free medecines that are then traded for a profit etc etc Personally, I would give priority to fighting tax evasion and forcing businessmen out of the submerged economy rather than slap on higher indirect taxes on everybody (which give additional incentives to take refuge in the submerged economy). And I would give priority to reforming the bureaucratic apparatus and welfare system, to weed out the more obvious cases of systematic corruption and theft.

So Merkel is not totally wrong. And her insistence on austerity might really help put the European House in order. Let's just hope that she'll relent and allow for Euro-salvaging measures like quantitative easing before the European House collapses...Also because if Europe collapses, there's a real danger of contagion, and America could plunge back into recession.

Hey, we're all in this together!
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Rome under the Snow, Part II: The Real Story Behind the Polemics

Snow storms hit Rome yesterday, February 11th, but polemics raged all week. Here's the snow storm hitting my street:

And here's how Villa Volkonsky, the residence of the British Ambassador in Rome, looked hidden behind a double curtain of trees and snow:

Yet, more than the snow, the talk on Italian television and the media was not the snow but polemics surrounding the emergency.

Here's the story behind the polemics.

It's a fact (as I documented in my previous post) that the snow emergency last week caught the city totally unprepared. The images of Rome waking up the following morning under the snow were beautiful, but the beauty couldn't hide the fury of Roman citizens. They had been caught in traffic the night before during a home rush hour that in some cases lasted...eight hours! The next day they were stuck at home, public transport had broken down, even the metro was inaccessible and the supermarkets were empty. No milk, fruits, vegetables or fruit. Unthinkable!

Whose fault was it? How could a modern metropolis of three million inhabitants be caught unprepared?

All eyes accusingly turned to the the Mayor of Rome, Gianni Alemanno:

Il sindaco di Roma, AlemannoImage via Wikipedia

He should have warned the citizenry! He should have called the army in, he should have done something! Yet that first night, as the snowfall intensified all he had done was limiting himself to issue a warning that snow tires or chains were obligatory. The next morning, when 50 cm of snow had covered Rome, there was no one to shovel the snow, no means to clear the streets. In the afternoon, only a handful of people were used to clear the access to the football stadium, while the rest of the city remained paralyzed. 

The Mayor of course had a ready rebuttal: it was the fault of the "Protezione Civile" - that's the Italian state agency that is supposed to be responsible for the protection of citizens and organizing emergency aid in cases of natural disasters. The Protezione Civile, created 30 years ago, has earned high marks handling Italian natural disasters, most recently during the earthquake that hit Aquila in 2009, the deadliest earthquake since the Irpinia one in 1980. It left over 300 dead, 65,000 people were made homeless and thousands of buildings in several medieval towns, in particular the Aquila, were damaged .

So Alemanno passed the bucket and accused the Protezione Civile. A lot of Romans did not appreciate. The Protezione had done its duty: it had given ample warning of the impending disaster. It was up to the Mayor to take the necessary measures.

Say that again? Wasn't preventing disasters and organizing emergency aid the job of the Protezione Civile? Wasn't that what it was supposed to do, what it had been created for?

Apparently not. Following the Aquila episode, the Protezione Civile's mandate had been reduced from organizing and providing aid to merely coordinating it. And as anyone who's been involved in emergency aid knows (I have been, I know - in my work for FAO, I travelled to Kosovo, Ethiopia and Eritrea), with coordination you don't get very far in an emergency. To do things you need means, and you need them fast.

But the funds and power to obtain means had been taken away from the Protezione Civile. It was now up to mayors and local authorities to obtain funds and means - and if the town was too small, or like Rome lacked funds (too much spent on public concerts rather than on serious stuff), then there was only one way out: seek help from the Ministry of Interior.

Imagine that, having to go through a long-winded bureaucratic procedure to obtain the means to address an emergency!

That means you wait two, three days or more before you can get any help. Result: not only Rome suffered (but fortunately for Romans  it turned out to be a minor inconvenience), but people outside Rome suffered more, especially those living in small towns and villages in the mountains.

Imagine, numerous villages around Italy, especially in the Abruzzi and in Basilicata, found themselves totally isolated for days - up to 5 days and more... going without electricity and water! And in sub-zero temperatures! And with food reserves growing scarce!

That, as Guido Bertolaso said on his blog, is unacceptable for a modern, advanced democracy. Bertolaso? He's the previous head of the Protezione Civile (from 2001 to 2010),  now retired - he was forcefully removed from his job, more on that in a minute.

So the polemics swelled and Alemanno, the Mayor of Rome, pulled his act together and when a warning came that a second snowfall would hit Rome by Friday 10th, he was ready. Salt and sand bags had been brought, shovels distributed, trucks and other means mobilized, as necessary.

Indeed, on Saturday morning, I woke up to the sound of shovels raking the streets. Here are the men in orange suits, armed in shovels, in front of the British Embassy:

Yes, not working very hard. Five minutes later, they were leaving, shovels on their shoulders:

They were right of course, the snow was already melting. I thought I'd join in the effort and took the shovel the city had given us after the first snowfall:

I never thought I'd be shoveling snow in Rome one day! But if you look closely at the photo, you'll see there was no real need for it anymore. Indeed, a few minutes later, this is how the Church of San Giovanni looked, splendid under the (customary) Roman sun, with only wet streets as a reminder of what had happened:

Back to normal? No, the polemic was raging and I wanted to know what was the real story behind it. I asked around and dug into recent history.

This is what I found.

It all began after the Aquila earthquake. A nasty polemic developed around Bertolaso who was at the time the head of the Protezione Civile and considered a hero by many. Berlusconi, then Prime Minister, had asked him to move the G20 meeting, originally intended to take place in La Maddalena to Aquila in July 2009 - a foolish idea considering the region had just been struck by an earthquake and the priority should have been on reconstruction and giving homes to displaced people. But Berlusconi wanted to show the world what a brilliant manager he was. And he counted on Bertolaso's exceptional organizational skills.

But something went wrong. Maybe hubris, maybe the lax approach that was a mark of Berlusconi's management style, maybe irresistible temptations, maybe the little time available before the G20 meeting, who knows - no matter the reason, the fact is that Bertolaso ended up being accused of squandering state funds on dubious contractors.

The scandal at the time was enormous. For many, it looked like a national hero was unfairly under attack. But since there were growing proofs of wrongdoing, Tremonti, then Finance Minister and a moral purist, took a major decision: he presented to Parliament a law decree (the "Multiproroghe") that, among other things, was designed to take away from the Protezione Civile any funds or power for implementing emergency aid and left it with only an ill-defined general "coordination" role.

The law was passed in February 2011 and Bertolaso went home (actually he had left before).

With the present snow emergency, this law decree caused a mess: nobody knew who was supposed to do what, and with whose funds. Many people were left with the impression that the Protezione Civile was still the one in authority, when it no longer was. That had been clearly the misconception the Mayor of Rome had labored under - him and probably many others.

To put an end to the mess, on 8 February, the Monti government published a decree (here's the link) that clearly spells out who does what at every level of government: regional, provincial and local and this at the behest of the Protezione Civile.

So is the Protezione Civile back in power? Not quite: the decree only refers to the "exceptional weather adversity of February 2012". So what will happen with the next emergency, say next month or a year from now?

Your guess is as good as mine...

Italiano: Guido Bertolaso a Viareggio in segui...Bertolaso - when he was still running the show (Image via Wikipedia)

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1% against 99%: the Real Story behind the Euro Crisis

The Euro crisis, the move to austerity measures and budget deficit reduction, the disregard for policies to stimulate growth can all be traced back to the actions of one single group: the one percent.

That famous one percent from the 1% vs. 99% formula  the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought up to the front of the scene.The focus on social inequality was no doubt Occupy Wall Street's major contribution to the debate on how to solve the Great Recession that started in 2008 and  is still not over in spite of some recent improvements in the US. Plus the situation in Greece is rapidly deteriorating: it looks like default by March 20, probable exit from the Euro and then all bets are open: will the Euro collapse? I don't think so, but the situation is dire. Labor reform is at the centre of the debate, and it's not a question of job creation but of belt-tightening: fewer jobs, cuts in salaries. Ask the Greek what they think!

Massive unemployment is still with us on both sides of the Atlantic. I know, Americans have just received some good news about their unemployment rate but the truth is that nobody expects America to reach full-employment before...2019! And unemployment is worse among the young, reaching peaks of 50% in places like Spain, Greece or Southern Italy and it's pretty bad in several American States too. Perhaps the most surprising is that unemployment also affects the college-educated...our modern society produces technical marvels but cannot solve the problem of unemployment.

Unemployment is unquestionably the NUMBER ONE problem of our times, yet it's been kicked under the carpet, obfuscated by a misplaced concern for fixing budget deficits - a concern that is turning into an obsession.

We are told all day long by the media that budget deficits are the real problem. A parallel is drawn between state budget and our own as private citizens: if we are able to keep our income in balance with our personal expenditures, as any responsible individual should, the State should be called on to do the same.

It sounds reasonable and virtuous.

Actually, it's idiotic.

A state budget cannot be compared to an individual's budget. It's like comparing a pyramid with a sand castle, a mountain with a mole. One is collective and institutional - it represents the budget of a community (millions of persons) and expenditure planning over time (up to 20 years) - while the other isn't. It's individual and short-term. Each of us balance our budget (or try to do it) on a monthly basis and we don't go beyond our family responsibilities.

Looking at a state budget over the long run - say 20 years - it is obvious that you should balance it over that time period and not try to do it year by year. The Bible talks of cycles of seven years of good and bad times. Business cycles can be shorter or longer, but withing 20 years, you can expect to go through at least a couple of major cycles. That's at least a couple of opportunities to straighten your state budget if it got out of balance.

What do I mean? Simple, the 20 year period gives you a chance - you as a government - to do something constructive about a recession. When business stops investing and retrenches on employment, thus causing a downward spiral in consumption, it's time for you, the government to step in. You spend money on infrastructure, even digging useless holes as Keynes once famously suggested : it's better than doing nothing, because you'll maintain jobs and consumption level in spite of and in the face of the retreat in private business activities.

If you do nothing (as Republicans and British conservatives of the Osborne ilk would have it), business confidence won't be restored: as consumption winds down, businesses see their markets vanish. They are not crazy, they are certainly not going to start hiring in times of disappearing markets!

When times get better, when business is investing and hiring, profits and tax revenues are rising. That's when you start balancing your budget. You should never do it - much less think of it - in times of recession.

Yet, even though our Great Recession isn't over and indeed threatens a "double dip" in Europe, austerity measures, fiscal discipline and the virtue of balanced budgets continue to be blithely promoted by politicians who don't understand anything about economics, starting with Angela Merkel and Sarkozy and outside of the Euro-zone, Cameron in the UK and the Republicans (especially the Tea Party)  in the US.

All these austerity policies completely disregard the knowledge accumulated by the science of economics over time. What is most disturbing is the rejection of  Keynes historically-proved solution to combat depression. Somebody has to make the economic machine turn over: if the private sector won't, the public sector must kick in.  It took the massive expenditures of World War II on military production to lift the US out of the Great Depression.

What war will be needed to lift Europe out of the Great Recession?

Italy's prime minister Monti stands out as an exception among European politicians when he keeps harping that we need to focus on reviving economic growth. He's too good an economist not to know that austerity discourages consumption, hence business investment, thus bringing the whole economic machine to a grinding halt...

So how come so much nonsense is spread around in the media about the recession and means to get out of it?

First, this kind of "media noise" - fed by the systematic downgrading of sovereign debt by the American credit rating agencies - provides speculators, i.e the 1%, with the perfect opportunity to make loads of money. The rating agencies are not entirely innocent:  they are private and cater to the interests of  their primary clients, big banks, hedge funds and other speculators.

The 1% bets against the Euro and walks away with millions in profit.

Anyone who's got cash these days would be foolish to invest in the real economy beset by unemployment and weak consumption. So whatever extra funds are sloshing about - and there are a lot thanks to the US Federal Reserve policy of "quantitative easing" (read: printing dollars) - they all go into playing exquisitely 1% games on Wall Street, betting against sovereign debts. The game's been lucrative and it has been going on for quite some time now: the first one that got hit was Dubai, remember? That was almost three years ago.

At this point in time not a single one percenter is interested in the real economy. What business can give you similar returns to Wall Street? None! The financial world has overshadowed Main Street, and the 99% is sitting out in the cold.

Second point, no financial speculator has ever made money out of solving the unemployment problem. That's a boring, difficult problem. A real life problem for Main Street. But if the 1% says the government can't help by spending money on job creation because budget deficits are sinful and hurtful for future generations, well...It only means that recessions will be longer and deeper than they were in the past.

All we've learned from our Great Depression experience has been forgotten!

Yet unemployment is here, it hurts and it continues to hurt. Everywhere, on both sides of the Atlantic pond. A this point in the debate, no one knows quite what to do with it. There's a general feeling it has something to do with technological advances and globalization.

Recently the New York Times posted a fantastic graphic video, "the iPhone economy", showing how Apple has grown to be as big as GM but has only created one tenth of the number of jobs - and most of them in Asia...The job multiplier is very high in manufacturing and very low in services: auto jobs add 5 times as many jobs to the overall economy, while the multiplier for, say, hospital jobs is around 1.7! Take a look at the video, it lasts just 4 minutes and vividly explains why our economic problems are so hard to solve.

As it says, "we've become a nation in which people have fewer chances to climb into the middle class". Fewer chances? Actually, for the young, the chances are nearly none! The middle class is evaporating, everyone is into the 99%! Why? Because jobs in manufacturing have disappeared, that's why! You're either a skilled engineer or techie hired by Apple at high salaries, or forget it...

What is needed fast is a good discussion about how to solve unemployment and not a pointless discussion about deficit reduction.

Solutions? I've blogged about them several times (click here, here and here), obviously preaching to a desert.

People prefer to talk about budget deficits: that's a simple problem, right? The left column must equal the right column. If you try to say that this balancing act doesn't need to be continuous, that it can be done on and off over time, you're accused of selling off the future of your children. Goodness, why? Are you afraid the technocrats in charge of the budget are going to knife you and your children in the back? But the technocrats have children too...

Bottom line, if we, the 99%, were better aware of the ins and outs of the issue, there would be no problem. We wouldn't fall for the 1% self-serving arguments or political discourse aimed at scaring us.

If our politicians learned a little more about technical issues, it wouldn't hurt. Instead, they merely echo the opinions of the 1% - that was especially obvious at the Davos meeting: the WEF is a 1% event if there ever was one!

We might at last have an enlightened democratic government...But I'm afraid I'm daydreaming. We keep electing politicians for all the wrong reasons: because they have a nice smile on TV, they have a warm handshake, they speak well and easily about anything including things they know nothing about. But then, we don't know how well they've been primed. And if they're rich, or supported by rich friends - read the 1% - then it becomes easy: you buy your looks, your speeches, your opinions from the 1%.

Help! Is there an independent politician anywhere?

PS. In case you're wondering, yes, I did that caricature of 1% basking in the sun while the 99% sit under the rain...
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Rome under the Snow: What it's Really Like!

The last time it snowed in Rome was back in 1986! So Romans are unprepared, and what happened is what I want to show you here. No photos of the Colosseum or St Peter's under the snow, I'm sure you've seen them on TV. What you're getting is an insider's view!

It all started around 1 pm Friday February 3rd. Looking out the window of my living room, this is what I saw:

Giuseppe (my husband) and I wanted to go to a museum - forget it! We decided to stay home and console ourselves with good food:

Yes, for those of you who think I'm a die-hard beer drinker (because of my post on beer-drinking in Rome), you're in for a surprise! I love wine and this was a fantastic bottle - the last one in our cellar: a Brunello di Montalcino 1981. Yes, that's not a typo... ok, we drank it because it was so old: it needed drinking before going off (actually it was perfect). We had it with a little foie-gras followed by two scrumptious Italian cheeses: an aged Gorgonzola and a moist Taleggio. And with that, a perfect pear:

There's an old saying in Italy: "al contadino non far sapere quant'è buono il formaggio con le pere" (roughly: "don't tell peasants how well cheese goes with pears"). To me, it smacks of a historical example of the 1% showing disdain for the 99%!

By 3 pm, it began snowing real hard:

We heard on TV that people going home that night had been blocked for hours - up to 8 hours on the beltway ("raccordo annulare") circling Rome. Imagine, 8 hours trapped in your car! Many are said to have walked away, abandoning their car and creating a yet bigger traffic jam. That event actually marked the beginning of a wave of protests against the authorities, in particular the Mayor for not having listened to weather forecasts and not heeded the warnings issued by the "Protezione Civile" (the Italian State Agency for Emergency Aid/Protection of Civilians).

That night, that's how our street looked like as we went to bed:

Next morning, our geraniums were buried under some 50 cm of snow and Rome looked like it had moved to Finland:

I ran down to the street and this is what I discovered:

Yes, it was already 11 am, and there had been no attempt to clear the street. No salt, no sand, no shovels, nothing. Some people tried (uselessly) to free their cars:

Motorcycles? Forget them! Here's one girl busy recording with her camera what must be her scooter. Nice color lady!

When I got to Piazza San Giovanni, people stood there waiting for a bus that wasn't coming (they said they'd been there for 45 minutes) and the taxi stand - usually filled with a dozen cabs - was empty except for one daredevil:

He told me he had wrapped a "sock" around his front tires - it's that yellow stuff:

He said it was easy to put on, that it gripped the road pretty well as long as the snow didn't turn to slush. If it did (and now it certainly looked like it would as the day wore on and temperatures went up), it would become ineffective as the slush insinuated itself in the "sock". He assured me he planned to drive very very slowly...

Walking further into Piazza San Giovanni, I was taken by the beauty:

Note that most people walked around in ski outfits. I only saw one lady in a fur coat...And of course snowmen were made left and right, including this one which shows that in Italy, art is never far away:

The young man kneeling behind is (I presume) the artist. And here's a truly spectacular view of the old Roman walls - first built by the ancient Romans and expanded through the Middle Ages:

Walking back home, I noticed the milk truck in front of our neighborhood supermarket:

It got there three hours late! As did the bread. And when I walked in, I discovered empty shelves: no meat, no milk, no eggs. People were assaulting the "gastronomia" counter where they sell select hams, cheese, pasta sauces and the like:

It felt like World War III. Everyone was buying huge amounts, acting as if no truck would ever reach Rome again. Of course, the truck drivers strike last week had already put everyone on edge. And the media later reported that dozens of villages in the mountains were cut off. Actually tens of thousands of people in Italy are going without electricity and water, sometimes up to three days...So Romans are (as always) rather privileged people...

But there's little doubt that the city authorities did nothing to clear up the streets...except for distributing free shovels to the citizens, expecting them to do the work themselves! Here's a neighbor who got one of those plastic shovels, proudly showing off:

And then - this being Italy - he is happy like a kid playing with it, throwing snow at his friends:

Not too much clearing of the sidewalks (though the next day he told me he had helped free several cars)...We had a late lunch and once again resorted to our favorite defense strategy: good food. This time it was sautéed shrimp in a white wine sauce with black olives and cherry tomatoes (if you'd like to have the recipe, click here):

By 3 pm, because this is Rome, the sun was back shining again on the trees in front of our windows:

Emergency over? No, the media warned us that temperatures would drop and we could expect ice. The next morning, Sunday 5 February, some snow had melted away, but much remained and all very icy and slippery:

This guy (holding the yellow shovel and walking away) tried to clear the sidewalk but it was iced over and hard and he gave up before finishing the job.

When I walked in the supermarket to get some bread and potatoes, I was in for a big surprise:

Empty shelves, worse than the day before! No fruits and vegetables, no bread, no milk, no water, nothing. The media are reassuring: trucks should reach Rome by Monday - the only people in trouble (as always) are those in the mountains, without road access, electricity or water...

Meantime, the streets around us continued to be covered with snow and ice with no sign of any help coming from the city authorities. And small wonder: on the 12 o'clock news, I heard a special team of 400 people had been sent out with heavy equipment to clear the football stadium and area around it because of the big Roma-Inter match coming up in the afternoon.

In Italy, your best bet is to be a soccer fan!

For more pictures, go to my Picasa Album: click here.

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