Getting Close to the “Darkest Hour”: Ancient Art Destroyed, Lives Lost, A Voice for Freedom Silenced

We are getting close to Mankind’s “darkest hour”. The Voice for Freedom, silenced in Moscow on 27 February, was that of Boris Nemtsov. It was close to midnight, he was gunned down not far from the Kremlin, as he was walking home from a radio interview in which he had dared to take Putin to task for his warmongering in Ukraine.

Nemtsov was a liberal politician, a fighter of corruption, one of the most important leaders in the opposition to Putin. As a young man, he’d been close to Yeltsin, serving as his first deputy minister and many thought that since he was Yeltsin’s right arm, he would succeed him; instead, Putin, Yeltsin’s left arm, the man picked to spy on several of his colleagues, was the one ultimately chosen – with the catastrophic results we all know.

And of course Putin is behind the failed cease-fire in Ukraine. Merkel and Hollande unwittingly played their part: the agreement they brokered was faulty, the rebels quickly took advantage of the loophole and trapped the Ukrainian army.

As to the situation in Iraq, we can only watch with rising horror as ISIS and like-minded terrorist groups in Libya systematically pursue and behead Christians – putting at stake the very survival of Christians among the Muslims – and, as if this were not enough, destroying ancient art in Mosul, proving to the world that they have sunk to the levels of animals.
Yes, indeed, Yeats’ poem of the Second Coming, with its image of the beast, comes to mind:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The “darkest hour” is the phrase coined by Winston Churchill to describe the desperate moment when Britain stood alone against Hitler, as the Nazi forces invaded France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941. The “finest hour” is perhaps one of his most famous speeches, delivered to the House of Commons on 18 June, 1940 two days after France had sought an armistice.

It is probably one of the world’s greatest masterpieces of oratorical art, both defiant and uplifting.

The peroration of that speech, if you substitute references to Britain with the phrases civilization and “human rights”, eerily applies to our situation today.

….However matters may go […], we […] will never lose our sense of comradeship with the [Christians of the Orient] … the Battle of [Human Rights] is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of… civilization. Upon it depends our own […] life, and the long continuity of our institutions… The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us…. If we can stand up to him, all [the world] may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.
But if we fail, then the whole world, … including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if [civilization and human rights] last for [another] thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour.

What a pity the United Nations continues to be bypassed: our best instrument to avoid war and defend human rights remains sadly unused, as the Big Powers take turns to block the Security Council.

All we have for now are comments from the UN affiliated organizations. Two stand out:

  • One made earlier by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian prince and the first UN human rights chief from the Muslim and Arab world: reacting to the horrific beheadings perpetrated by ISIS, he implored the Security Council to support efforts to overturn ISIS’ “ideology of violence and death” , saying there was no space for it in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No space at all.
  • The other from UNESCO. Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s head, condemned ISIS’ destruction of ancient Assyrian art “as a deliberate attack against Iraq’s millennial history and culture, and an inflammatory incitement to violence and hatred.”

Naturally, the Security Council also condemned ISIS, but it continues to debate the situation in Syria with no resolution in sight, because of Russia’s and China’s threat to block any action with their veto. Authoritarian regimes band together to trample human rights, no surprise there. 

This week, in a New York Times Op-Ed aptly titled “Unshackle the United Nations”, Amnesty International vigorously called for the Big Powers to stop using their veto when human rights were at stake. “2014 was a catastrophic year”, it said, listing human rights abuses in 160 countries and noting that the Security Council wielded their veto power on the sole basis of “vested interests and political expediency.”

Wounded Syria girl treated at a hospital. See NPR article

The world has become more dangerous than ever, a dark place. Very sad… 

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What’s Wrong with Europe? Ukraine, Greece and Libya: All Unfinished Businesses

Libya is sinking into a fundamentalist Islamic chaos, the cease-fire in Ukraine is breaking down and Greece’s debt problems are far from resolved.

Merkel, Putin and Hollande at the Kremlin (2015)

And this in spite of the the so-called agreement reached in Minsk between Putin and the Merkel-Hollande couple. And in spite of the news coming out late Friday evening (20 February) that the Eurogroup (the Euro-zone 19 finance ministers) had agreed to extend by four months Greece’s bailout, thus avoiding a financial shutdown of Greece.

Anyone following the news in Ukraine can see that the cease-fire hasn’t got a ghost of chance, with Russia still fully supporting the rebels’ advance in the East.  Yet, both Hollande and Merkel confidently talk about taking new sanctions and Kerry echoes them. One wonders how anyone can still believe in the power of sanctions. Surely Putin doesn’t care.

As to the Greek bailout extension, it’s a sham: this coming Monday (23 February), as reported in the New York Times:

“Greece must send its creditors a list of all the policy measures it plans to take over the next four months. If the measures are acceptable, European finance ministers could sign off on an extension of the bailout agreement on Tuesday.”

Varoufakis and Tsipras (Facebook)

Really, a “list of all the policy measures” by Tuesday? And to whom are the said measures supposed to be “acceptable”?

To Germany, of course. The fundamental idea is that a newly elected government in the Euro-zone cannot change the commitments taken by a previous government, i.e. the austerity measures forced upon Greece by Germany. Therefore the new government led by Tsipras and his dynamic finance minister Varoufakis must continue with the reforms and austerity policies called upon by the infamous “troika”, the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Back to square one.

Italian Military Mission (Olycon)

And the same can be said for Libya. The chaos threatening this country, just 350 km off the coasts of Europe, is a matter of grave concern to Italy: the radical fundamentalist Islamic militia over-running Libya are patterned on ISIS. Threats have already been sent via Twitter to Italy. The wonder is that the rest of Europe doesn’t seem to care. Italy declared its willingness to lead a multinational force to “restore peace and order” in Libya and sought a green light from the UN Security Council – as did Egypt, after it had attacked extremist positions inside Libya a few days ago.

But the Security Council did not respond – in practice, both Egypt and Italy were told to calm down and forget it.

I am worried. The world is fast sinking into anarchy, the West is doing nothing to stop it and not even using its prime instrument to prevent war: the United Nations. After Gaddafi was ousted, no serious effort has been undertaken to help Libya recover and rebuild – a tiny UN mission was sent to Libya, with no means to operate on the ground, and all the UN Representative can do, is warn that Libya is falling apart. Yes, it’s rapidly becoming a failed state like Somalia, and it’s sitting on Europe’s doorstep.

Of the three problems, Greece should be the easiest to fix: write off the debt and forget it. If one is to believe Paul B. Kazarian, one of the “vulture investors” of Hilary Rosenberg’s famous book, the €318 billion Greek debt is worth only one tenth of its value as a result of the series of adjustments to the Greek debt over the years that include restructuring, maturity extensions and interest rate reduction. He argues that if one applied international accounting rules and took into account the assets owned by Greece, the overall net debt figure would fall to €32 billion. “You are suffocating a country with a figure that has no relevance”, he argues, “Just take the fricking loss and move one.”

Not many people agree with him, such views are always scary to conservatives and particularly so in German circles. Yet, historically, sovereign state debts have always been treated this way: that is exactly what happened in the United States, for example when the Second Bank of the United States collapsed in 1836, sending thousands of UK investors scrambling for their money. This was not the end of the United States’ dollar, so why should a Greek (near) default be the end of the Euro?

When will our European leaders wake up and start facing the far more important challenges of Ukraine and Libya? Europe, quo vadis, where are your values, where are you going?

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France, Taking the Pulse

 I spent the past week in Paris and it has opened my eyes.  Several widely-held opinions and ideas struck me:
1. I am not Charlie
I met NOBODY who evinced support for Charlie Hebdo – now with the killings in Denmark, there has been a revival of that “let’s defend freedom of the press” mood, but it is sure to soon pass away. The Charlie Hebdo cover that came out a week after the murders caused everyone to tell me, with emphasis on the “not”, “I am not Charlie”.

You may wonder who I met and to what extent the people I talked to were representative of French people at large. I can’t prove it but I am convinced that they were in fact very representative.

First, everyone in the French opposition to the French President François Hollande felt that way. Even the most rabid supporter of the French government were upset that taxpayer money was used to finance what they saw as a “dirty sheet” (my opinion too, I never bought it) – one that just went ahead and produced yet another disgusting caricature in bad taste, profoundly disrespectful of another religion. And that means about half the French feel that way. If not more: you need to add all the Catholics of France who ave heard Pope Francis exclaim from the Philippines (where he was traveling at the time), that every religion should be respected.

2. The Légion d’Honneur is Not What it Used to Be


I discovered that the very people you’d expect to respect (even admire) the Légion d’Honneur, the top decoration in the country – and I am talking about top diplomats, lawyers, business managers – felt that the Légion d’Honneur was increasingly misused: in fact, the Légion d’Honneur is not what it used to be. They mentioned to me (with ill-disguised disgust) that it is given to athletes because they run faster or jump higher, to celebs because their smiles  go viral on Internet, but it is no longer given to “for the right reasons” to people “who deserve it”. In their view, Thomas Piketty was right to refuse it.

3. The United Nations No Longer Counts

This, to me, is very upsetting, considering that France has historically always been a great supporter of the United Nations since its inception – and France is one of the Five Big Powers at the UN Security Council with veto power (along with the US, UK, Russia and China). I came across this conviction when I listened to a conference given by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in a private circle – a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Levitte is a top French diplomat who was French Ambassador to the United Nations (2000-2002) and Washington (2002-2007) and served as Diplomatic Advisor to two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy. He talked knowledgeably (of course!) about world politics and the changes since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, evoking the way ahead, particularly in connection with the on-going Ukraine and Syria crises.
He sees the world as totally changed since World War II. In his view, the United Nations no longer counts. The way ahead, in his opinion, is through setting up  ad-hoc mini coalitions of committed and involved countries, preferably a mix of one or more of the UN Security Council Five Big Powers, the P-5,  plus interested countries.

For example, the way forward for the Syria crisis, he suggested, would be to get together the P-5 plus Germany and include those countries in the region that are most directly concerned: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He noted that, while they didn’t “like” each other, they ought to understand that it was in their best (and immediate) interest to see the Syrian situation resolved.

As to Ukraine, the mini coalition, he reminded us, is already at work: Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (Kiev) with the East Ukraine rebels on the outside and the US benevolently looking on. As he told us that night, he fully expected that when Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko met in Minsk, they would “stop the clock” to ensure they would reach an agreement for a cease-fire. Now we know he was right, and they did: they worked all night Thursday 12 February – a full 16 hours, something unheard of for heads of state and government chiefs.

4. Stopping the Clock


Now let me say something about this gimmick of “stopping the clock”. I know it well, because my uncle worked on the EU Common Agricultural Plan in the 1960s, and I remember he used to work all night long and I’d often meet him after breakfast, walking in his garden and musing about the future of Europe before returning to the (clock-suspended) meeting.  This gimmick was repeatedly employed by European high-level functionaries -including ambassadors – who thus hammered out all the basic agreements needed to build the European Union. Let me emphasize: Functionaries used to do this, not top level politicians. But diplomacy is no longer what it used to be either, and now diplomatic work has been taken over by the likes of Putin, Merkel and Hollande. Personally, I think it’s a mistake: if you discuss at top level you don’t allow yourself the chance of saying, “I must refer back to my capital” which is an elegant way of stalling and gaining time before figuring out the next best move.

Regardless of what the Four Big Guys said to each other in Minsk, Hollande and Merkel came back triumphantly saying (some sort of) an agreement had been (somehow) reached. Whether it will hold up is anyone’s guess. The first cease-fire back in September 2014, as we all know, didn’t last beyond a few days…

5. Mini-coalitions of “Willing Countries” Have Yet to Prove that they Work

As of now, and I am sure that if Mr. Levitte is reading me he would agree, the “mini-coalition” model has yet to prove itself. It works in the short run, but does it work in the long run? It allows for quick decision-making and fast on-the-ground moves, notably in Iraq when Bush and Blair steamed ahead in 2003 and more recently yet, in Libya, with the French-English attacks to dislodge Gaddafi. But what about the aftermath? Iraq, as we all know, dissolved in chaos with ISIS taking over a big chunk of both Iraq and Syria. As to Libya, it’s an on-going chaos, with militia vying for power. Libya, if nothing is done, is going the way of other failed states, like Somalia.

Mr. Levitte suggested that Libya should be “accompanied” on the road to state-building by yet another mini-coalition of willing countries – presumably, he was thinking of France and Italy plus a handful of Arab countries, maybe Qatar?

The question comes naturally: why not strengthen the UN Mission in Libya and give it (for once) the means to operate instead of resorting yet again to a phantomatic coalition of countries whose interests and commitments must necessarily waver with every new election at home and thus vanish overnight. Only the UN can ensure long-term commitment, provided it is given the means to function (i.e. sufficient budget and manpower – the UN has a proven track record of state-building in East Timor and Cambodia – and it has a long experience in electoral assistance the world over).

6. Paris in the 21st Century: the Louis Vuitton Foundation

After all these discussions, it was a pleasure to relax and visit Paris’ latest museum for Contemporary Art, Frank Gehry’s new, stupendous construction, the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s, on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. It occupies a corner of the old Jardin d’Acclimatation – a sort of rural, botanical garden with pigs, ducks and sheep and a Guignol show, great for children. And, seen from the Jardin, the Gehry building looks like a weird, disjointed, alien sailing ship that crashed from the sky:

Within that array of “sails”, there are some terraces you can walk on that give you surprising vistas on Paris – very much a 21st Century town with its skyscrapers of the Defense lining the horizon:

My only regret was the inside of the museum: big rooms, yes, but most without direct light. No attempt is made to take advantage of those “sails”. As a result, the rooms display art very much in the way other museums do, with flat walls and rectangular floor plans. So why bother so much with the outside and not the inside? I had expected to see weird-shaped rooms, things that would leave me gasping…Maybe another time, somewhere else, an architect will surprise us with both the outside and the inside.

I highly recommend that if you go and visit the museum, take your time to stroll in the Jardin d’Acclimatation next door (your ticket buys you entrance to both): a pleasant walk in nature after so much steel and stone…

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Greece vs. Germany: A Game of Chicken Or Cat and Mouse?

Paul Krugman in the New York Times has called the rapidly unfolding Euro crisis a “game of chicken” (here). I think it’s more like a  cat-and-mouse game played by Germany against Greece, in which Germany is a Big Fat Cat trying to immobilize a darting Greek mouse.

As I explained in my previous blog post, the Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his Finance Minister, Varoufakis, started by refusing to talk to the “troika” (European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission) and traveling all over Europe to raise support for a renegotiation of the bailout that has caused so much suffering in Greece – from unbearably high unemployment (over 40%) to a collapse of the national health system and a 25% shrinking of the economy.

Yes, a darting mouse.

Next, last Wednesday (4 February) , the European Central Bank (ECB) made the first move,  announcing that it would no longer accept Greek government debt as collateral for loans. And the announcement came just before Varoufakis, the Greek Finance Minister, was to visit the ECB President, Mario Draghi.

Mr. Krugman did not see this as a serious move. Yet, it means further pains to the Greek banking system that is already suffering from a run that began last week with Syriza’s victory. No surprise there: wealthy Greeks are all taking their deposits out and with the click of a button sending them to Frankfurt or London.

When that happens, it is in principle the role of the ECB to provide liquidity to the affected banking system and this is normally done by accepting national bonds as collateral,  at a very low cost. Mr. Krugman sees the ECB decision as merely one step in the on-going negotiations – a warning signal that doesn’t substantially change Greece’s situation since it can still have recourse to an ECB special loan program designed to support banks, called Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA). That’s true but the trouble is that it’s much more expensive, about three times as much.

Then, the next bomb exploded: on 6 February, one of the world’s three major rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s, downgraded Greece’s rating from B to B-, practically junk.

The upshot? To raise funds, Greece will now face higher costs on international capital markets.

The reasons given for the downgrade – liquidity constraints on the banking system and prolongation of talks with official creditors for a revised bailout deal –  come as no surprise.  As Standard & Poor’s put it:

In our view, a prolongation of talks with official creditors could also lead to further pressure on financial stability in the form of deposit withdrawals and, in a worst-case scenario, the imposition of capital controls and a loss of access to lender-of-last-resort financing, potentially resulting in Greece’s exclusion from the Economic and Monetary Union.

Needless to say, the Tsipras-Varoufakis travels did not yield the expected returns. Even Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, abandoned the Greek cause, siding with Merkel – alleging the Italian banking system held €40 billion in Greek debt.

The Greeks are taking it well (so far) saying they’ve got sufficient sources of financing.Varoufakis, upon his return, exhibited his usual self-assurance, saying that he had “logic” on his side.

Logic? Yes, if Europe, with its continued demands for austerity, pushes Greece too far against the wall, there won’t be any reason for it to stay in the Euro. In particular, if the ECB doesn’t act as a lender of last resort to Greek banks, why should Greece continue with the Euro? A collapse of the banking system has always been identified as the first thing that would happen to any Euro-zone member leaving the Euro. But if it is already collapsing, why stay in?

I know, for years, I have blogged about the Euro crisis, taking the position that a Grexit (exit of Greece from the Euro) was impossible. Now, I believe it’s entirely possible. The main reason for believing that a Grexit would never happen used to be the so-called “domino effect”: if Greece left, the next in line would be all the Southern European States suffering from the same debt overload and faced with the same urgent need to reform, i.e. Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy. This was such a huge chunk of the Eurozone that it would have caused an avalanche, burying the Euro.

But now something is changed: starting in March, the ECB will be able to engage in Quantitative Easing (QE), on the model of the Federal Reserve – something it has never done before because the Germans, fearful as always of any growth in sovereign debt, had prevented it. But now, the German red light has turned yellow, and QE is no longer out – indeed, it is in.

This means that if Greece exits the Eurozone, the ECB has the power to stabilize the currency through QE. And Greece is a small part of the game: its GNP is about 2.5% of the total Euro-zone. The ECB surely has now the firepower to handle a Grexit.

So, the outcome could really be a Grexit…Your opinion? Do we want Greece out of Europe? If it goes back to the Drachma, it will find new friends to help its finances: Russia and China – perhaps even Turkey (in spite of historic dislikes…) How will Europeans feel when Greek ports on the Mediterranean are run by the Chinese? When Greek banks recycle Russian money? Where is European solidarity and the dream of a United Europe?

Ask the Germans…

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Climate Change and the Collapse of Western Civilization

To anyone living in Europe, it is truly puzzling that Americans continue to deny Climate Change.  The anger, recklessness and vehemence displayed by American “climate deniers” are something of a mystery. And their favorite argument is that there is no scientific “evidence” of global warming – in spite of the rising number of “extreme” weather events, the floods, the fires and the melting ice, and some of it happening right on their doorstep.

Now, finally, two American scientists – one from Harvard, the other from the California Institute of Technology – have given us the key to the mystery.  Naomi Oreskes who is professor of the history of science and affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University and Erisk M. Conway,  an award-winning historian of science and technology at the California Institute of Technology, have used in their latest book, The Collapse of Western Civilization, a remarkably effective dramatic device. Instead of writing a standard analysis, they have set it in the future, giving it the detached, objective tone of scholarly work. It is intended as the fruit of research by a future scientist looking back on our time and trying to figure out the factors that “explain” how global warming caused the collapse of Western civilization. The year is 2939, and what bothers our future scientist is how the United States, the most powerful country on Earth, was, in spite of its power, unable to reverse climate trends.

Don’t be put off by the dramatic subject. This is a book packed with humour that will make you smile (or perhaps snigger?) and the book description in the Kindle Store perfectly captures the spirit of it:

 “a senior scholar of the Second People’s Republic of China presents a gripping and deeply disturbing account of how the children of the Enlightenment, the political and economic elites of the so-called advanced industrial societies, entered into a Penumbral period in the early decades of the twenty-first century, a time when sound science and rational discourse about global change were prohibited and clear warnings of climate catastrophe were ignored. What ensues when soaring temperatures, rising sea levels, drought, and mass migrations disrupt the global governmental and economic regimes? The Great Collapse of 2093.”

The book is clearly a success on Amazon. This is the ranking (as of February 1, 2015):

And it has already garnered 178 Amazon customer reviews. On Goodreads it got 305 rankings (average 4 stars) and 91 reviews. The mainstream media also paid attention to it, in Nature, Scientific American, the New York Times and probably many more that I missed.I particularly liked this comment from Elizabeth Kolbert, the author whose The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History I’ve reviewed in an earlier post. This is what she has to say: “Provocative and grimly fascinating, The Collapse of Western Civilization offers a glimpse into a future that, with farsighted leadership, still might be avoided. It should be required reading for anyone who works — or hopes to — in Washington.”

Yes, can we sway our politicians  or are we destined to perish like the Maya civilization? A few decades of drought, causing an economic collapse and internecine fights, were enough to turn the once-splendid Maya cities into ghost towns by the time the Spanish conquered Mexico. Of course, our civilization is global and it will take much more than a few decades of drought to kill it off. But then, Climate Change is a much more massive event…

Maya site: Palenque

I was so moved by this read that I wrote a review (now on Amazon) that I’m happy to share here:

5.0 out of 5 stars A Powerful Read and a Wake-up Call, January 20, 2015
Delightful read if one may be allowed to use that particular adjective when the subject is so grim. And the authors, two science historians coming from the best universities in America (Harvard and the California Institute of Technology), managed the feat of making serious analysis read like fiction. A real page-turner. Yet it’s not fiction, far from it. The book is in fact reviewing what’s wrong with our society, pin-pointing with deadly accuracy the reasons why we are unable to stop our “civilization” from rushing to “collapse”. This is a book that should be taken seriously by anyone concerned with our future, and in particular by our political leaders.

The idea of analyzing what is happening in the climate change debate from the standpoint of the future (the book is purportedly written by a future historian located in China in 2393) is particularly effective as it gives a neutral, balanced voice to the whole account. And it is refreshingly novel. The fact that it is short (a mere 100 pages) no doubt also helps. This is both a powerful read and a wake-up call. I found the arguments particularly convincing and being an economist, I especially liked the twist they put on economic concepts, for example, Hayek’s and Milton’s “neo-liberalism” calling it “market fundamentalism” (indeed, those theories are ideologies rather than scientific) or “gross national product” amusingly described as an “archaic” concept.

The humor is there but it is ultimately very dark humor. The message is clear. If we don’t do anything, if we don’t reverse engine and control gas emissions, we are doomed and why this is so is masterfully demonstrated. Many factors are at play and the authors pull them together in a compelling way, using the detached tone of a future historian who is puzzled by the fact that Western Civilization could not avoid collapse in spite of its remakable advances in science and technology.

The reasons for our failure to address climate change are clearly analyzed and deconstructed – and suddenly, reading this brilliant essay, I began to feel like the Mayas must have felt when decades of unexpected drought destroyed their civilization, causing economic collapse, local wars and social chaos. Just like in the case of the Mayas, the reasons we are failing are all linked to each other – to global warming of course, but more importantly, to the way we handle it (or rather do not handle it – we simply deny it’s there).

The book is at its best in explaining exactly why we deny climate change, in pointing to the “internal” causes, things that lay at the heart of our civilization, things that made it once great and that are now causing its fall – like, for example, “reductionism” which is the idea (that began in Descartes’ time) of solving large problems by breaking them down into smaller, more “tractable” elements. The approach has proved powerful to advance knowledge but as the narrator coldly remarks “reductionism also made it difficult for scientists to articulate the threat posed by climate change, since many experts did not actually know very much about aspects of the problem beyond their expertise.” As a result, scientists did not speak in a single voice, climate change continued to be denied, fueled by the interests of the “carbon-combustion complex” – another witty take on Eisenhower’s famous “military and industrial complex” – and political leaders thought they had more time to address it than they really had.

Other contributing factors are also identified, such as over-reliance of scientists on the concept of statistical significance (also termed an “archaic”!) – something that had never occurred to me before and yet totally makes sense. And this is yet another reason why I loved this book: the authors managed to shed new light and come with new insights on an argument, climate change, that I tend to consider “closed”, in the sense that I can’t imagine what more could be added.

Actually, although I gave it 5 stars, I don’t think the book is perfect. It falls in two areas, as I point out here:

There are only two aspects I regret, one, is the reference to just one climate fiction novelist (there are many, climate fiction is a brand new genre and rapidly rising with the likes of Margaret Atwood) but of course, the authors have a right to their own likes and dislikes in fiction; the other, is the premature burial of the United Nations following the collapse of international talks on climate change at some point in the mid-21st century. Personally, I view such a collapse totally unlikely – the United Nations are here to stay, they are indispensable and most likely to preside over the collapse of our civilization rather than being buried before…But those are minor details and don’t detract from the main strengths of this excellent book, which is to unravel the puzzle of climate denial.

Highly recommended.

Yes, regarding the United Nations, I do think the authors got it wrong. The road is long and difficult, but the United Nations could well be the one institution that will help to wake up the world to the danger and save Western Civilization from collapse! But I do take it on board that the authors were writing a worse case scenario and therefore had to somehow delete the UN from the equation.

As to the idea that we will experience Global Collapse as soon as 2093, why not? I suspect it is a little early, but I could be wrong on that one. In any case, in my own book about the future (Gateway to Forever), the story starts in 2222 and global warming is not longer a subject of debate, it’s a fact. Why did I chose that date? Because I rather like the numbers that repeat themselves (!). And I didn’t want to fall in the error Orwell made with his 1984 which was far too close to his publishing date (1948)… But then, he too liked to play with numbers and simply reversed them!

Naomi Oreskes rock climbin at Jackson Hole 2011 (photo Andy Tankersley)

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“The End of Power”, Mark Zuckerberg’s Choice

Why would the world’s most famous billionnaire, Mark Zuckerberg, pick Moises Naim’s erudite book, The End of Power, as his bedtime reading in January – and at the same time create a book club on Facebook that drew 250,000 members over just two weeks?The first answer is: wow! 250,000 in 2 weeks is surely a sign of power. Publishers (and authors) take note.

The second is a little more complex. As the UK Guardian commented, the ‘year in books’ kicked off with Mark Z.’s announcement that he would read one book every other week in 2015 and everyone rushed to buy the first book he chose to read, Naim’s latest opera magna.  The effect was instantaneous: the book flew to the top of best-selling non-fiction on Amazon – I checked today, it’s #1 in both “international and world politics” (hey, what’s the difference between these two terms?) and “History & Theory” (never knew there was such a thing, does it mean the theory of History or the history of Theory?). No matter.  The point is that Mark Z.’s choice sent it climbing off the high shelf (over 40,000th rank on Amazon) where it had been sitting quietly since it was published back in 2013. However, it should be noted that it had never been quite forgotten all this time: it had been enough of a success in academia and among the likes of Bill Clinton to be republished in March 2014. No doubt one reason why Mark Z. picked it.

But journalists won’t let go of Mark Z. It was noted (again in the Guardian) that the reason for this choice no doubt had something to do with the fact that in his own way Mark Z., as the founder of Facebook, is one of the most powerful men in the world. And with a title like that, the “End of Power”, Mark Z. would obviously be interested. Who wouldn’t want to find out what kind of dangers to your hegemonous position the future might hold?

Incidentally, and this is directed to my fellow writers, please note that a tech billionnaire who makes time to read books in his (presumably) super-heavy schedule does NOT pick as his first read a fiction book. No, sorry guys, he does not. No thriller, no romance, not even a historical. And this is something that really doesn’t surprise me: in my experience, people who work hard do not read fiction, at most they might read history books or biographies of famous people. And of course futurology-type books like Naim’s – books that ask hard questions about the world we live in. But not fiction – for such people, fiction is not entertainment, it’s a waste of time…And this applies to men and women alike – I remember that when I worked, I rarely read fiction except when I traveled and I suspect this is still the case today for career women.
Back to Mark Z. and his book club adventure. How did that first two weeks of reading go? First, he organized a Q and A session with the author, inviting his 31 million followers. As reported by the Washington Post (here) it was off to a “pretty lame start” and the UK Guardian (here) noted it was a “disappointing first chapter”. Fewer people turned up than expected, I checked, a little over a thousand out of the 250,000 who had signed up for the Book Club. And the stream of questions and answers were jumbled, missing parts and almost illegible – not a pleasant read.

Several journalists quicked noted that Mark Z. had been tripped up by his own algorithms on Facebook that nowadays (for reasons only known to FB programmers) mysteriously hide certain posts – and that many of the Book Club members probably had not even noticed the invitation to the Q and A session in their news stream. And many of those who did come obviously hadn’t read the book, as  shown by the 137 questions asked. Also, several people, rather than asking questions to the author, wanted the book free and/or complained of difficulties to download the book on their Kindle etc. Actually, when I went yesterday to the book page on Amazon to write my own review of the book, I noticed that hitches with the Kindle had even wound their way into an absurd 5-star review of the book – not a review of the book at all but a complaint regarding downloading (hence, why give it 5 stars?). Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly), Amazon did not take it down even though it is blatantly not a review.

The Washington Post suggests why so many people might not have read  the book by the time of  the Q and A session:

“It isn’t exactly a sexy beach read. (From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, being in charge isn’t what it used to be”!) It’s also 320 pages long, which means — since the club starts a new volume every two weeks — you’d have to read 23 pages each day to keep up.”

Yet in spite of all this hullaballoo around the book, it is, in my opinion (and I read it!) really worth the effort. Here is my review, as posted on Amazon:

An Excellent Read – A Misleading Title   (4 stars out of 5)

Engaging, fast-paced and chock-full of information, it is a great read, hard to put down. The approach to analyzing power is novel and the premise on which the whole book is built is compelling, as many other reviewers have noted here, in particular, the three “Ms” – More, Mobility and Mentality – as analytical tools. The book argues that the nature of power today has changed; “minipowers” have arisen thanks to globalization and technological advances, in particular the digital revolution and Internet, and they are now able to successfully fight back the “megapowers” (read: nation-states; big churches and religious organizations; big, transnational corporations, trade unions etc). And the author provides vivid examples to illustrate what he means, well-chosen and convincing.

The trouble starts midway through the book when the time comes for the author to show that there is actually a trend towards decaying power. Naim fails to show that trend and the data he brings only shows that the nature of power may be changing, that it is become more fragmented, that it is shifting to newcomers. But it certainly does not mean that power per se is “ending” or that the megapowers will stop being big guys any time soon. On the contrary, with the rise in income inequality and the growing strength of finances worldwide – proof of which is now masterfully contained in another important book, Capital in the 21st Century, written by a brilliant economist, Thomas Piketty – what we are probably seeing is not the “end of power” but the rise of a different kind of power. A new class of people (the power elite? the so-called One Percent?) is now better able than ever to successfully lobby governments, or any other megapower, to advance its own interests. Though the art of lobbying has been around a long time and is nothing new – but then, the concept of a “power elite” is not new either. One could even reverse Naim’s thesis and argue fairly convincingly that power is fragmenting in a million rivulets, leaving only the megapowers standing, re-inforced by growing financial strength.

In fact, Naim must have felt the ground shaking under his thesis because he doesn’t really suggest any solution or offer a clear vision of what might happen once the supposed “end of power” is upon us. There is talk about alienation and entropy but no conclusion. Perhaps one reason for this weakness is that Naim’s book came out in 2013, fully a year (or more) before Piketty’s book. It is quite possible that Naim himself today would end his book differently.

And this is why I could not assign 5 stars to this book. Bottom line, perhaps the problem is more with the title of the book than its content – a catchy title to be sure, and no doubt the reason why Mark Zuckerberg chose it as the first book to read in his recently launched book club (250,000 members in just two weeks!). As the UK Guardian snidely remarked, the subject would obviously appeal to a billionnaire like him and the disruptive title provides just the kind of anxious frisson you’d want to get from a book about our society and where it’s heading. It’s a shame that it doesn’t deliver on the promise held in the title. But it does one thing superbly: document the current change in the nature of power, how it works. And for that reason alone, it is well worth reading.

Happy reading and do let me know what you think!

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2015: New Challenges in Publishing

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Now that the dust has settled on 2014, we begin to see what 2015 will bring. Is the e-book market crashing? Too soon to say, but there are some worrying signs of trouble. Here are the most likely:

1. A growing glut in books. The fast growth in titles in the Kindle Store will continue unabated: in August 2014, the number of books available was around 3.3 million, now, six months later, it’s getting to 3.7 million (as per the data available in the Amazon Associates search box; I just checked, the exact number of e-books is 3,647,578). At this rate, expect it to get close to 5 million by the end of this year.

2. Adding to the overflow in everyone’s Kindle is the fact that traditional publishers have now woken up to the market-effectiveness of low-priced e-books.

That’s a big change for 2015. Low prices and going free were the marketing strategies of choice for indies – no more. And Russell Blake was one of the first to catch on to this change (see here).

Big Publishers are no longer afraid that e-books will “gobble up” sales from their printed books. They’ve finally understood that e-books are no threat simply because they are not the same product. A printed book is an object, something you show off to your friends, give your family or use to scribble comments in the margin. An e-book is not an object, it’s a reading service: it’s hard to give as a gift (though it can be done) and it’s not even clear if it’s something you can bequeath to your children when you die. So now self-published authors must bear the onslaught of low prices on current New York Times best sellers – and that already happened at Christmas when Amazon showcased on its website a big sale of Hachette’s best sellers at $2.50 apiece.

Life was always hard for new self-published authors who had to withstand competition not only from the traditional, established “mega sellers” but from fellow “midlist” authors with huge back lists to self-publish and a big fan base acquired in earlier days when they were traditionally published.

Now life has just become a lot harder.

3. A breakdown in the e-book market caused by book subscription services. The latest arrival, Kindle Unlimited (KU), with 700,000 titles that KU members can access for the modest sum of $9.99 per month, is the biggest, potentially a much larger market than the other two, Oyster and Scribd. It is also the one that happens to pay its authors least, provoking the ire of many indies that have decided to “leave” KU (to do so is simple: all an author has to do is to get out of KDP Select).

Some argue that both Oyster and Scribd that pay authors better don’t have a sustainable business model, yet Scribd just raised $22 million to fund its e-book service (see here). Scribd’s aim? To get on board “all the significant publishers”.

No doubt Amazon wants the same for KU.

Perhaps it won’t be so easy, as a result of the possible withdrawal of some best-selling indie authors, the likes of J.A. Konrath who trumpetted he left KU or H.M. Ward who announced on the K-boards that “KU crushed my sales”, as the New York Times recently reported (see here). But KU will no doubt rely on traditional publishers, not to mention Amazon’s own imprints, and one can expect that eventually, KU will contain plenty of NYT best sellers as well as a myriad of unknown indies and better known indies who have smartly cut up their longer books in independent sections, creating out of each title, 3 or 4 books, as Bob Meyer suggested.

The strategy to deal with KU is simple. For example, if you have a trilogy, put all the books of the trilogy into KU and keep the omnibus edition out. If you have serialized your novel, publish every episode as a separate book on KU and keep the omnibus edition out – and available of course in the Kindle Store and on all other platforms (ibooks, Kobo, Barnes and Noble etc).

The implication of this strategy?

Expect the number of titles available on KU to grow exponentially this year. And the pay-out per book read to drop (Amazon pays the author as soon as readers have passed the 10% mark). It’s now around $1.40 per book read – overtime, expect it to drop to around 50 cents and below.

Are subscription services, and KU in particular, like Spotify?  More to the point, should we expect the destruction of the book industry?

The answer is complex, KU is not Spotify, books are not songs. Printed books will survive, what is at stake here are e-books.

First, an observation. So far, indies who became best-selling authors usually made big sales thanks to their “voracious readers”, i.e. people addicted to a certain kind of literature, like the teenager who reads every western that comes out, or the lady who reads every book about zombies, regardless of whether it is written by a big name or an unknown author.

In short, “voracious readers” are the ones who have made best-selling authors out of indies. They’re the ones who, because of their reading habits, were always looking for low-priced books in order to stretch their budget as far as it would go. That’s why going free or setting your book at 99 cents worked so well during the “indie gold rush” that began in 2010 and ended now with KU. It is clear that those price strategies are not likely to work all that well anymore. You can try them for your books that are outside of KDP Select, but not for those inside (there’s no need). And voracious readers are not going to respond to your price campaigns because they are safely esconced in KU and have plenty to read. Indeed, even for them, their Kindle may start looking like it’s over-flowing.

But, hold your breath, there’s a silver lining to KU. For an excellent, balanced and dispassionate analysis, read Jake Kerr on the subject (here); he’s had experience with the music industry and is probably one of the persons best placed to understand what is happening.

Kerr points out that KU won’t really make that much difference to big names like Rowling or best sellers in a niche, but “of all people who should consider KU, new authors are the safest bets for making the most of it”. Why? Because, bottom line, it provides them with excellent exposure to “voracious readers”, the real beneficiaries  of book subscription services and the ones who are likely to stay in KU.

4. Book marketing strategies in 2015 will have to take into account the “non-voracious reader”, that kind of reader who is more picking, more difficult to convince but once convinced, more effective at spreading the word about a book in a convincing way.  And they care about what is said about the book by people who can make professional reviews.They are always looking for a good read but like to check out on the author, they want to hear what is being said about books in the media, they are out to pick the ones that give them something more than mere entertainment from a “genre” novel, they don’t want to waste time with poor quality books. These are people who probably are not going to join KU or any other subscription service. They read less and they read in many genres and they are demanding. They buy fewer books than voracious readers but they do buy books - maybe 5 or 6 a year – and when they do, they are ready to spend more on a book if they think it’s worth it. Price is less important for that kind of reader than content. And what is important to understand: These are the people that turn books into lasting mega best-sellers because there are so many more people like them than there are voracious readers, the voracious ones have always been in a minority.

In a way, we are back to the traditional publisher’s eco-system of literary critics publishing thoughtful articles reviewing books in the mainstream media (from the New York Times to Granta magazine).

This is why Amazon will have to consider doing something to improve the review system in the Kindle Store. Fellow readers have told me that on Amazon they tend to ignore book reviews.  Given the quality of reviews now, they’re probably right to ignore them.

So what’s the problem?  Amazon, so far, has relied on “customer reviews” and the only effort at identifying top reviewers is through the Vine Program  – unfortunately, if you check them out, you will see that those “top Vine reviewers” were not necessarily knowledgeable about books and literature; they just happened to reach the top because of all the other reviews they did on Amazon products, from cameras to jewelry. For example, one of the Vine Program’s top reviewers for books is someone who likes to read and reviews exclusively a sub-sector of science fiction, military sci-fi, and nothing else. That is fine, it’s his right to do so. It is clear that he enjoys spending his time reviewing products like electronic gear which he gets to try out than the (few) books he gets to read.

What Amazon needs to do is to pull together a body of top book reviewers, thus creating a special Book Vine Program, showcasing those professional-level reviews separately from customer reviews. If this were done, book reviews would really help readers in selecting the right read – something that doesn’t happen now.

The digital age so far has been in the hands of Amazon’s commercial eco-system, where books are ranked based on sales in real time – no doubt, an interesting statistic that appeals to the competitive instinct in human nature but that also has a practical use: it allows Amazon to efficiently organize its bookselling website. Makes sense: you search for your favorite genre or sub-genre by refining your keywords, and you get a list of the top best-selling titles in that particular area. But you’re human too, you don’t really read beyond the 25th title in the list before choosing something on the basis of a catchy book description (pitch). Fair enough and a rather clever way to organize a website. But more can be done by adding a new feature, a ranking based on professional-level book reviews – not merely a filter for selecting books that have 4-star-customer-reviews-and-above, as is the case now.

That’s just one thing Amazon could do. And it could do more now that the Amazon-Hachette dispute is settled. Expect growing cooperation between Amazon and the Big Publishers in 2015 and some big surprises – probably not all of them going the indies way, but some might, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

And this gets us to the crux of the matter:

5. Book discovery remains the #1 problem, still waiting for a solution. Can Amazon propose a solution? I suggested above an upgrading in their Vine Program to make it more appropriate to the book market.

Surely more can be done – for example, in terms of more book fairs aimed at readers rather than at publishing professionals. Let’s make books fun to read! Let’s usher in the Age of the Enhanced E-book, mixing words with images, music and video! Let’s link with Hollywood, with the videogame industry, let’s expand e-book markets around the world, making it easier to buy digital…For example, Google books is using a better payments model than Amazon, easier to use for people who live in  countries like India, and that should probably be the payments model for the future.

6. The rise in tie-in novels. As Amazon famously pointed out to Hachette, books need to be priced low because they compete with other forms of entertainment, from video-games and TV series to sport and travel. But low-pricing is not the only rejoinder to that challenge. Remember the saying? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em! That’s why you can expect tie-in novels to play an ever more important part in the industry, as the New York Times recently noted (see here).

As authors, we’ve always dreamt of seeing our work turned into movies, like the Hunger Games or Game of Thrones – this is the reverse: books are written after movies have become stellar, like Star Wars or the recent case reported by the NYT, Sons of Anarchy, that recently ended its 7-year run on FX and needed a boost from good old-fashioned books.

7. The world of self-publishing is changing fast and the gold rush is over.  Now everyone acknowledges this and it is no longer the subject of debate as it still was last year. Everyone has also become keenly aware that publishing is a fast-changing and highly complex industry, as it continues to be buffetted by the digital revolution (not least by KU and book subscription services). The way forward for aspiring authors is hard to see and they would be well-advised to carefully consider their options and not rush into self-publishing. This is precisely the kind of advice they can get from veteran blogger and best-selling author Anne R. Allen, see here. I recommend a careful read of that thoughtful post full of interesting information. It’s the first time I see what happened to the first generation of self-published stars like Amanda Hocking who, after selling a million copies on Amazon, had joined traditional publishing (with a huge advance that drew admiration from the press): we are finally getting the bottom line from an editor at St Martin’s press who confesses the disappointment of Big Publishers with their newly acquired self-published authors, saying they discovered the “market was tapped out”.

So, as Anne R. Allen puts it, “the self-published e-book is no longer the new query“. Even if you sell hundreds of thousands of copies, don’t expect a Big Publisher to approach you. And bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and W.H.Smith and Waterstone won’t like you. Amazon is no longer the “indie playground it used to be”, bonuses are awarded to big star authors who belong to traditional publishers and Amazon imprints. Bookbub, the top advertising venue for indies, has become overrun by “trad pub” titles at the expense of indies. “Social media has been spammed to death. Facebook has become pretty much useless for authors” – and I would add, so has Twitter and Pinterest. The final, most striking comment comes once again from Bob Meyer who told the New York Times: “If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following, you’re in a lot of trouble. Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened.”

In short, if you have chosen the self-published route, be aware that you have to stay in it forever (or change name and genre). You may never get the Pulitzer or the Booker, but you will probably make a lot of money. Provided you sell hundreds of thousands of books of course…So yes, don’t expect self-publishing to wither away, there are still plenty of self-pubbed authors who make a lot of sales (and money), particularly in well-defined niche genres (romantic suspense is probably the biggest, as Bella Andre’s success shows). But the days of the successful “hybrid” author, with one foot in trad publishing and the other in self-publishing, could be soon over. One of the main reasons why a self-pubbed super star went with a trad publisher was to get books in print and into bookstores – but that may no longer be needed with the recent improvements in Ingram’s services (see Porter Anderson’s interesting post on this, here).

Your views about the changes 2015 will bring? Please share in the comments. What else do you see as a big challenge in 2015?

 

Post-scriptum: To usher in the New Year, I’ve lowered the price of my latest book, Gateway to Forever,  at 99 cents. Wonder what that will do to KU (chuckle), but if you’re curious, you can see it here, and this is the new cover:

A love story set 200 years from now…

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