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11.02.2012

If Obama Wins, Will America Go the Way of Spain and Italy?

English: Southern Europe
English: Southern Europe, feeling red with anger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With Obama as President, America will go the way of Spain and Italy. That's what Romney just said, earning the ire and justified contempt of both Italian and Spanish citizens. The media here in Italy is full of angry headlines, including the Sole 24 Ore, a highly respectable rightist business paper (something like the Italian Financial Times).  Is Romney really so desperate for votes that he needs to insult two ancient European countries that have always been loyal allies of America? 

Romney
Romney (Photo credit: Talk Radio News Service)

During the last debate with Obama, I had noticed that Romney mentioned how the Obama government spending would lead America straight into a situation like Greece's. At the time, that was picked up by few people: presumably, the American electorate of Greek descent is not very large and the remark passed (nearly) unnoticed. But this time, he really put his foot in it, this is BIG! Americans of Italian descent and Hispano-Americans are millions! Do they enjoy the way Romney disparages the old home country? If Romney ever wins and becomes the next American President, he can be certain that he will not be received with roses in Southern Europe.  Right now, they all see RED!

Particularly if you consider - as most Europeans do - that both the 2008 Big Recession and the unprecedented swell in the American debt have been the work of a succession of Republican administrations, starting with Reagan's deregulation and ending with Bush's two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. So if Southern Europe is in the mess it is in today, it is largely as a result of a complex series of events that can be traced to both the collapse of Wall Street in 2008 and the American wars in the Middle East. Sure, local corruption and the dead weight of bureaucracy and red tape have added to the pain, but it all began as a result of investors looking to line their pockets through attacking the Sovereign Debt of relatively weak states (after Dubai in 2009 they moved to Greece, remember?)


US President Barack Obama and Italian Presiden...
US President Barack Obama and Italian President Giorgio Napolitano in Rome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If Europeans could vote, the gap between Obama and Romney wouldn't be razor thin the way it is in America. Romney scares Europeans, indeed most of the world, with his astounding lack of diplomacy - but then Americans have never cared about their world image, have they?

Over here, on this side of the pond, we are all keeping our fingers crossed...for Obama! And if Republicans really can't stomach Obama, hopefully they will abstain and not vote for a man who is certain to create havoc in the international community, turning it from a "community" to a theater of war in his determination to make of America a new "uber alles" nation...
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10.31.2012

Euro Crisis: Time for Greece to Exit the Euro?

ATHENS, GREECE - FEBRUARY 12:  People clash wi...
ATHENS, GREECE - FEBRUARY 12: People clash with police  (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)
Is Greece about to fall out of Europe? Is "Grexit" (Greek exit from the Eurozone) a solution for the Euro-crisis?

A Grexit would cost the Euro-zone "several hundred billion euros" according to former Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Officer Josef Ackermann: it's definitely something that bankers don't relish.

As I am writing, the finance ministers of the Eurozone are holding a conference call on Greece to figure out how to avoid a Grexit. Views are still widely divergent on how to proceed and don't expect a solution to emerge today. But there's no doubt that the next four weeks will be crucial.The IMF suggests Greece needs another debt cutback, Germany is against it. At most, it seems it will consider a debt buyback (this is known as the "Asmussen Plan"). 

Meanwhile rumors are flying around the Internet, see articles below. It would seem the Troika (i.e. experts from the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission sent to Athens to oversee conditions to release bailout money) whose report is eagerly awaited, is about to tell the Eurogroup of financial ministers: “It is clear that Greece is off track and there is no chance they will cut the debt to 120 percent of GDP in 2020 as envisaged. It will be rather 136%. New prior actions will be needed, on top of the existing [ones] before any new tranches of eurozone and IMF emergency loans to Greece can be paid." Bloggers have zeroed in on the sentence I've bolded here. Adding to the buzz, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported in this week’s edition that the Troika is to propose a debt restructuring for Greece that would require public-sector lenders to take heavy losses - meaning you and me, as taxpayers, will get hit in our pocketbook. 

That's something that stirs up Germans who from the start of the crisis have felt no sympathy at all for the Greeks whom they view as "profligate and corrupt".

Now we don't know yet whether this conclusion will be part of the Troika report and even if it were, there's really nothing new in this. Only one fact is certain: if the Greek government doesn't get the next tranche of its €130 billion bailout plan, i.e. 32 billion Euros it needs to stay solvent, in 10 days funds will have dried out, the government machine will grind to a halt.

Last week the statistics were finally in proving once and for all the uselessness of austerity measures: both the IMF and Eurostat reports show that despite the push for austerity, EU debt has continued to increase. Greece is among the European countries that have made most progress in closing the budget gap, yet overall debt load has soared. Greece’s ratio of debt to gross domestic product has hit a new high of 170 percent. Experts all agree now (including the IMF) that a less rigid stance on austerity is needed, that debt relief is inevitable over the long run if Greece is to return to meaningful growth - the only way for it to repay its debt obligations.

But is debt relief around the corner? Hardly. European politicians are mum on the subject, they fear losing votes from their taxpayers who'd have to foot the bill. In the meantime the situation for average Greek citizens is steadily getting worse.

In the last three years since the launch of austerity policies, the Greek economy has contracted by 25 percent, unemployment has reached the highest levels in Europe, together with Spain, hitting young people the hardest: one out of two is unemployed. The young Greeks that have both an education and experience are leaving their country to find work abroad: Greece is leaking its young and brave.

Time for Greece to exit the Euro? It would seem the cost exacted from Greece to receive bailout funds may have now far exceeded the (potential) benefits. Let me count the ways, just hitting on the most obvious "wounds" and I'm sure my Greek readers can add more to this necessarily short list:
  • 400, 000 children go hungry. That's right, in the "rich" Euro zone, there's so much poverty that people go actually hungry and some 400,000 children in Greece are affected, that's almost one third of the total population under 15 years old! People stand in line for donated food, something no one has seen in Europe since World War II. The government has just passed a law allowing supermarkets to sell expired food at a discount;
  • the National Health system has collapsed and people can't get medicine or treatment; there are some harrowing cases of cancer gone untreated for too long with heart-breaking suffering, cases recently documented in the New York Times reporting the remarkable selfless support given by some generous Greek doctors to the patients who cannot pay for their cures;
  • the education budget will be hit: for example, serious consideration is reportedly given to suppressing some 2000 posts of assistant professors at university level; cutting back on education and research is a sure recipe to consign a country to a permanent under-developed status;  
  • the cultural heritage and historical monuments are threatened by austerity cuts, maintenance has already ground to a halt; clearly such an approach threatens one of Greece's major sources of wealth: tourism;
  • business can't get the credit it needs to run daily operations as banks are emptied of cash and face collapse; as a result, the number of bankruptcies of otherwise perfectly healthy businesses is on the rise; 
  • the lack of savings is threatening the economy: for the past three years, Greeks have pulled their savings out of their home banks and placed their money abroad; there's a list of some 2,000 Greeks who have opened accounts in Switzerland that is at the center of an on-going growing scandal exposing a culture of corruption, with several Greek politicians and the government trying to cover up for their buddies (business leaders, journalists, architects, employees of the Ministry of Finance...);
  • the single industrial sector that is still going strong in Greece, shipbuilding, enjoys full immunity from taxes: historically, no Greek government has ever touched it, no austerity measure, no tax is envisaged, nothing; as a result, no relief or push can be expected from this sector that is "frozen" out of the economic picture...
  • the political rise of the neo-nazi Golden Dawn party closely linked to the police is a growing threat to democracy: most recently, 15 anti-fascist protesters arrested by the police after a clash with Golden Dawn activists reported that they had been tortured and humiliated in Abu-Ghraib style while detained at the Attica General Police Directorate; also, the journalist who uncovered the scandal of the Swiss bank accounts is facing trial three days after his arrest - an unusually fast response from the authorities - while Golden Dawn party members accused of wrongdoing go free and relatively unhampered (trials facing them take a slow course as usual).
So should Greece exit the Euro? No so simple. On the other side of the balance, a Grexit would be extremely costly for Greece:
  • 10 percent imediately lopped off gross domestic product  in the first year after a return to the Drachma, according to the IMF;
  • the new Drachma would be worth between 30 and 50% of the Euro according to most economists;
  • inflation would explode as consumers and business would have to pay 50 to 70% more for imported inputs: Greece imports nearly 40 percent of its food, most of its medicine and almost all of its oil and natural gas;
  • Greece exports very little: exports of manufactured products account for only 10 percent of gross domestic product, compared with a 30 percent average for the rest of the euro zone. 
That means the boost from a cheap Drachma would have relatively limited effects on exports. Greece is not well poised to take advantage of devaluation: setting aside shipbuilding, nationalization policies that followed the troubled 1970s has caused an erosion of the industrial base, a flight from agriculture and absorption of redundant employees in the government bureaucracy (which explains the exceptionally large government bureaucracy). 

But Greece draws income from other sources, like tourism and it does successfully sell its olive oil and dairy products (yogurt, cheese) abroad. Could a cheap currency help kick start economic growth, the way it did for Argentina? Not so certain. There may well be a trickle down effect on the rest of the economy but it's likely to be both small and take time.

Also consider the logistics: a departure from the Euro cannot be accomplished overnight. It requires complex legal procedures generating tremendous uncertainty and more capital flight. Already, big operators in Greece like Vodafone and Diageo bring back their cash to Britain every day to limit their exposure. Also, as mentioned above, since the beginning of the crisis everyone, from French and German banks once very present in Greece to Greek citizens, have taken their money out of Greece to safe havens and foreign banks have sold off their holdings.

So is the scene ready for Grexit? Tourism operators, hoteliers, business leaders in Greece are understandably against leaving the Euro: a grexit would be "bad for business".  

Would it be bad for the Eurozone as a whole? Europeans are weary:  what about the domino effect? Could Grexit bring down the whole Eurozone? While this should properly be the subject for another pos, here's a hint: Greece only accounts for some 2 percent of overall Eurozone gross domestic product, but it's not a simple matter of numbers...

My opinion? I think Greece should stay in but the bailout should be done keeping in mind:
- the population's basic needs in terms of health and education: hunger and physical suffering in 21st century Europe is not acceptable;
- fiscal equity: everyone should contribute, including the rich and shipbuilders; tax evasion is not acceptable;
- preserving the cultural heritage and historical monuments for future generations and of course tourism: it remains one of Greece's most important sources of income

Greece is the cradle of Europe...

What is your opinion? 
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10.24.2012

Even a Bad Review for Your Book Will Make People Want to Read it!

Cartoonists like to debate
Cartoonists like to debate (Photo credit: aaipodpics) and so do writers!
That book reviews boost sales is conventional wisdom. Authors are always on the look out for reviews and when bad ones roll in they are (often) desperate.

Should you worry over a bad review? Will it hurt your sales and kill your baby, I mean your book? Authors have seen a drop in sales as a result of it.

Or so they claim.

Amazon's director of author and publisher relations, Jon Fine begged to disagree at the recent Digital Book World conference on Book Discoverability and Marketing, held in New York. He started out by listing many interesting things about the buzz that makes your books sell, spelling out for his audience of hundreds of book marketers the top three ways they could make sure to get the most out of Amazon:
(1) availability of the book: a quality e-book including in print,
(2) metadata: meaning everything that helps sell your book online, including a catchy cover and relevant keywords/tags,
(3) improved author pages: including video links etc and giving support to authors, sharing sales data with them so that they can make informed marketing decisions.

Then he said something that was truly arresting: a greater volume of reader reviews is more valuable, he told the audience than a small number of reviews with more stars.“On our site, the more people are talking about your book the better,” said Fine. “Even a bad review will make people want to read your book.”

Say that again?

Bad reviews will sell my book?

Okay, I'm going to try a little experiment here. I recently got 3 reviews for my A HOOK IN THE SKY (they're on Readers Favorite, not up yet on the Amazon site - it takes a little time to upload...). Just giving you the evaluation paragraph (for info about the book, go to the page tab under the blog title). Tell me which you like best and makes you want to look at the book (I'm not saying buy it, more modestly: just take a look):

5* review: ..."Hook in the Sky" is a deeply thoughtful story of one man's life and how he comes to peace with his mission in life. Main character Robert is a longtime humanitarian worker and a gifted artist, but he and his art work never quite fit in with the designs of those around him, his wife Kay, longtime friend Natasha and her daughter Nour. All the characters in "Hook in the Sky" are well-created, the dialogue between and among characters is authentic, and the plot line flows believably to the end...

4* review: ...Robert is a very complex person, not entirely sympathetic but always well intentioned and generous, but this is a novel of prickly, difficult characters. They are convincingly portrayed and their interactions are inevitable given the personalities at play. There is an interesting, somewhat quirky plot, centred on art and the novel provides some interesting discussion of genres of art. It’s unpredictable which adds extra interest to this well written and entertaining book. It is set in France, New York and Italy and the settings are atmospheric and beautifully created. 

2* review: ...Although the book has fascinating details about the art world, museums and relationships, I found this a challenging read. I found Robert self-absorbed, self-indulgent and devoid of engaging personality. All his new pursuits become baggage he would rather do without and yet he continues to follow his wants – never quite finding the utopia of his dreams. The characters become very real through the story as Claude describes each one meticulously and you sense you really know them. I personally found the read almost depressing as I waited for Robert to find the happiness he longs for...

The 2*star reviewer quite clearly is exasperated by Robert, at the end she even adds a note directly to me, saying. "Your attention to detail is worth much merit, however I found the Robert character very self-centred and selfish - I became more and more angry with him as I read. He had so much and yet 'missed it' with his ego-centred thinking."

I thought that was amazing: this person got so upset by my protagonist that she gave my book a low 2*! Personally, I take it as a compliment: I had made Robert so real for her that she couldn't bear him. But would such a rating (and criticism) make you want to buy the book or reject it?
 
Tell me if I shot myself in the foot by sharing this information...I'd love to have your opinion in the comments below but I'm providing a poll to make it easy for you to answer:

Which Review Made You Want to Read the Book?
  
pollcode.com free polls 


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10.21.2012

Save the Antarctic,Make it a Marine Sanctuary!

Plans to turn part of the Antarctic, the last pristine ocean on earth, into a marine sanctuary are at risk!

 

Here's a message from  Leonardo DiCaprio, with the Avaaz team:

"Within days, governments could begin turning wide stretches of the Antarctic ocean into the world's largest marine sanctuary, saving the habitat of whales, penguins, and thousands of other polar species from industrial fishing fleets. But they won’t act unless we speak out now.


Most countries support the sanctuary, but Russia, South Korea and a few others are threatening to vote it down so they can plunder these seas now that others have been fished to death. This week, a small group of negotiators will meet behind closed doors to make a decision. A massive people-powered surge could break open the talks, isolate those attempting to block the sanctuary, and secure a deal to protect over 6 million square kilometers of the precious Antarctic ocean.

The whales and penguins can't speak for themselves, so it's up to us to defend them. Let's change negotiators' minds with a massive wave of public pressure -- Avaaz will surround the meeting with hard-hitting ads, and together we'll deliver our message to delegates via a deafening cry on social networks. 


Sign and share this urgent petition.

To sign the petition, go to:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_southern_ocean_5/?cAXfecb  

I just signed, hope you join me!
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10.15.2012

Almost $35 million for an Abstract Painting!

This just happened in London at Sotheby's evening sale (12 October 2012): Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild achieved over £21 million, that's almost $35 million, a world record for a living artist...I know, you're all thinking of Mark Rothko, Pollock, Warhol or Klimt, whose paintings have in recent years sold near or above the $100 million mark and sometimes even climbing close to $150 million. 

But here we're speaking of a LIVING artist, and that's simply amazing! 

This is a painting owned by rock star Eric Clapton. He must have celebrated this past week-end. Champagne! Caviar! Perhaps Richter wasn't quite as happy: after all, when he did this painting some 15 years ago, it didn't bring him anywhere near this sum! But there's a big consolation now: he can ask a lot more for his next work and get it!

Did that celebrity ownership help the sale? Perhaps, but I don't think so. There's an objective fact at work here:  Richter is quite simply one of the greatest late 20th century artist still alive, hanging in there - Lucien Freud was the other, but he's no longer around...

So we're left with Richter...Watch the video, you'll catch the excitement among the One Percent!

Makes you think, doesn't it?




PS:  I was just informed (mind you, like any good NYT journalist I won't give out my source, but believe me it comes from someone in the know) that when Richter started out with his abstract paintings in the 1980s, nobody wanted to buy them! Up to that point, he'd made his name making eerily blurred, highly poetic figural paintings derived from black and white photographs, and this sudden turn to abstraction was a shock and it was rejected by his clients. At the time, you could have gotten one of his abstract paintings for maybe as little as $5,000 or $10,000!

Certainly, he's come a long,long way! And it goes to show that people are not generally good at picking the winners...
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10.09.2012

When One Powerful Woman Threatens Millions of Others...

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Bangladesh's Prime Minister is threatening the future of millions of poor women in her country: she's clamping down on the one rural bank that helps them, the Grameen Bank! Once again the poor are downtrodden, beaten down by their own politicians, a scandal! Join the fight for justice, all it takes is a CLICK on your computer!

The Grameen Bank has enabled millions of women to lift themselves out of poverty by giving them tiny loans to buy animals or equipment to start earning money. But Bangladesh's jealous Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has fired its Nobel Prize winning founder Muhammad Yunus and now wants to seize control of the bank, all to silence a political rival. This takeover could break the bank and destroy millions of people's hope.

I worked in humanitarian and development aid  for 25 years, I know personally of the Grameen Bank's work, it has simply done an OUTSTANDING job helping the poor! The international community has recognized Yunus's remarkable work by awarding him the Nobel Prize - AVAAZ is right: we can't let one powerful, envious woman destroy the hopes of millions of poor rural women - a small Grameen Bank loan is their only hope to break out of poverty and feed their children!

Help AVAAZ to force Hasina to back down. Sign the petition, I just did. Here's the link:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_world_best_bank/?cAXfecb



Save the world's best bank
sign the petition


To Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina:

    Over the past three decades, Grameen has empowered millions of women and families in Bangladesh to break the shackles of poverty and inspired a worldwide microfinance revolution. You have the power to keep that hope alive. As global citizens, we urge you to stop the government takeover of Grameen Bank, starting with reversing the Grameen Bank Ordinance amendment that allows the government to bypass the people-elected board and handpick who runs the Bank.


As of October 9, Rome time 8 am: 73,428 have signed. Help AVAAZ get to 100,000!
Here's an interesting article that explains it all - gives you the info you need to take your decision:
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10.08.2012

Is Twitter Useless For Marketing?

Nail clipper
Nail clipper in the sky (Photo credit: adrian8_8)
I can't prove it, but circumstantial evidence is in: when you tweet your wares, "buy my book", "grab this while it's free on Kindle", "get the best nail clipper and off with your nails", well...  nobody listens to you! I tried a Twitter campaign last week, just to see whether it would work. After all, I have over 2000 followers, you'd expect some results if I gave them a good deal on my just published book A Hook in the Sky. And a good deal it was: half price (a very modest $2.99 - hey, that's less than a Starbucks' latte!), surely they'd all sit up and grab the book!

Twitter In Real Life Cartoon by HubSpot
Twitter In Real Life Cartoon by HubSpot (Photo credit: HubSpot)
Can I assume there was something wrong with my Twitter campaign? I don't think so. To get around Twitter rules that you can't tweet twice the same message, I devised a fun system with a (hopefully) witty message saying "in 24 hours, the price will DOUBLE on my book...",  "in 23 hours, the price will DOUBLE..." etc. You get the idea, this was repeated every hour down to the last 30 minutes. That message therefore spanned exactly the 24 hours before the price was raised and it was even retweeted by followers (thank you for the RTs!)several times. Which means it covered all time zones. The whole world was inundated by my tweets!

Perhaps not all 2000 followers were reached, but surely a few would buy! In the advertising industry, a CTR or "click through rate" of 0,2% is considered good. It used to be much higher in the 1990s: around 3%. By 2011 it's reportedly come down to between 0,1% and 0,3%. So I should have expected to sell at least 4 copies, right? How many did I sell as a result of the campaign? One. And I'm not sure that sale had anything to do with Twitter, because it was a Goodreads author's purchase, and he emailed me saying he regretted he'd opened his email too late and hadn't caught the offer in time before the price raise (yes, I had sent a message around to my friends on Goodreads as well).

Twitter Addiction
Twitter Addiction (Photo credit: dewaldp)

Could it be that the CTR is even lower than 0,1%? Are we suffering from marketing fatigue? Personally, I think we are. Have you EVER bought a book on the basis of a tweet on Twitter? I know I haven't. I don't even download free books on my Kindle anymore, I have way too many, more than I can ever hope to read over the next five years! No, I should correct that: I still download a very few books, mostly from authors that I'd like to explore. But quite frankly, the ability Amazon gives me of downloading a free sample of a book is plenty good enough for me. I don't need whole free books! 

Yes, I know what you will say, free books populate the box on your Amazon book site which says "customers who bought this also bought..." and a whole string of titles appear, making your book look good in the company of many others. Although they are often not similar books at all - Amazon algorithms can throw up some surprising books! Also allowing the first book in a series to go free helps to sell the others, makes sense. In fact, that's exactly what I plan to do with the first book in my new series, The Phoenix Heritage, the one called Flying in the Past (you can see it in the right margin). I might even let my new short story collection Twisted go free for a couple of days, particularly as it contains two stories that are prequels to The Phoenix Heritage series. 

Christmas Will Never Be The Same Because of Tw...
Christmas Will Never Be The Same Because of Twitter [cartoon] (Photo credit: methodshop.com)

But I don't plan to let my new novel A Hook in the Sky go free, don't bank on it! I worked hard at it, it took me two years to polish it to the point where I felt I could publish it. In short, it represents a big slice of my own life, I've invested everything into it (mind you, it's not autobiographical at all, but it's still me, my fictional self). And that is not worth nothing! At $5.99, I still consider it a steal!

Now should I go on Twitter with that sort of message: A HOOK is a steal? Certainly not! I'm through with book promotions on Twitter. What about you? How do you feel about Twitter, do you view it as an effective marketing instrument? Has it worked for you? I'd be curious to know!

To help you to answer (in case you don't feel like commenting), here's a poll: 

Has Twitter Helped You in Selling Your Book(s)?
  
pollcode.com free polls 


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