Tag Archives: United States

The Key for Peace: The Indispensable Role of the United Nations

Once again, one of my articles, just published on Impakter, with a remarkable introduction from the Editor (he is a millennial, a man deeply concerned about the issues of our time, value-driven like his whole generation, and this too is reason for hope in a better future). This is the beginning, to read the rest, go on Impakter, click here.

THE KEY FOR PEACE: THE INDISPENSABLE ROLE OF THE UNITED NATIONS

on 16 November, 2015 at 19:00

Note from the Editor: In these hours, following the tragic killing of innocents in Paris and Beirut,  our thoughts are with the people of France and Lebanon.

Impakter is a global publication. Our team comes from every corner of our beloved World. We represent the citizens of the World. Furthermore, our aim is to express that through this publication. Today we want this thought to reach higher than ever before. 

We believe that the current events taking place during the G20 could potentially be a significant milestone in our human history. A unprecedented event. The G20 could potentially regroup all the citizens of the World.  All united into delivering a safer and united future for all the generations to come.

The road is full of challenges, but  we will all walk through it under one flag, that of Peace. This is without a doubt a key turning point in our history. Like the Phoenix, we are to be reborn from the ashes of our World’s darkest hours.

Now, more then ever, we must move upwards and onwards. 

This is a first analysis of what might be happening next.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM THE PARIS ATTACKS – THE WAY FORWARD

Once the United Nations Security Council is unblocked, we can hope to see an end to the Syria crisis. So far, because of Russia’s repeated use of its veto power at the Security Council, supported by China, its usual ally, the international community has not been able to move forward in a concerted fashion. Syria, after three years of a devastating civil war, is now pounded by Russian and American forces and their respective allies, but they haven’t agreed on common objectives: Russia supports Bashir al Assad, the United States targets Daesh, a.k.a ISIS or IS. But now things are changing.

On Sunday 15 November, at the G20 meeting in Turkey, a major political decision was reportedly taken, a page in the difficult relationship between Russia and the West appears to have been turned. It seems that Putin and Obama had an eye-to-eye talk that lasted half-an-hour and their meeting was caught on Turkish television.

Negotiations under the aegis of the United Nations between the Syrian opposition and the regime [meaning Bashir al Assad] and a cease-fire

A White House spokesman said afterwards…

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How Good is Patrick Modiano, the New Nobel in Literature?

The Nobel jury seems to be able to discover new writers you’ve never heard of, coming from countries that have a literature you have never read, like China, Egypt or Turkey and everytime, it’s a real pleasure to discover something totally new. So when the Nobel this year went to a Frenchman I had never read – and I do read regularly French literature –  I was totally floored and rushed to buy one of his books. In French, of course.

I got “Rue des Boutiques Obscures” because I thought it was a take on the Rome address of the old Italian Communist Party (now PD, Partito Democratico). As everyone in Italy knows, it’s “via delle botteghe scure”. But no, this book has nothing to do with the Communist Party or any party for that matter.

Patrick Modiano is not interested in politics, he’s into the past, and a particular past at that, all the dark years around and during World War II, and most of his stories are set in Paris. In short, a very local, circumscribed author.

Yet, in spite of that, the themes he predilects are universal, they focus on the question of identity and self. This book, which came out in 1978, the year he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, was quickly translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, under the title “Missing Person” – actually one of the few books he wrote that got translated. It is published in the United States by a small indie press owned by David R. Godine and of course it is available on Amazon (see here). That’s where I got it – but I was able to find the Kindle version of the French original, to pass onto my 100 year-old mother who still reads a novel per week on her Kindle; incidentally, she was very happy to get it, she likes to keep abreast of the latest literary news…This said, I’m a little surprised that Amazon, ever so efficient, hasn’t got a digital version of the English translation all ready for the American public. Quite clearly, both Mr. Godine and Amazon were taken by surprise by the Nobel jury!

He wrote some 20 books in a career that spanned  nearly 45 years (he was born in 1945). As I am now writing this blog post, I just learned from an article in the Washington Post (here), that “Missing Person” is the book Peter Englund, a historian and the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, recommends to readers unfamiliar with Patrick Modiano.  “It’s a fun book,” Englund said. “He’s playing with the genre.”

And the genre he is playing with is mysteries. A detective, suffering from amnesia, sets out to recover his identity, following a variety of strange leads. As described on the Godine site:

In this strange, elegant novel, winner of France’s premier literary prize, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a onetime client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports, and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. 

I’d like to recall here a very astute comment made sometime back by Anne Korkokeakivi, writing for THE MILLIONS, where she noted that French novels tend to be “… dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten).” Patrick Modiano’s “Missing Person” precisely fits this description. It is all these things, dark, searching, self-reflective and yes, poetic.

Consider the first lines:  “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the café terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.”

Amazing, isn’t it? The opening sentence is just three words, but how they resound. I am nothing. That is of course the whole theme of the book. What comes next is a poetic evocation of someone barely there, uncertainly watching the rain. And the last part of the sentence immediately makes you want to know who is this Hutte – someone with a strange name if there ever was one.

Yes, that is how a master storyteller starts a novel, and I guarantee that you will be turning the pages as fast as you can. And you will be wondering as the main character follows clues that turn out to be non-clues, and you will find yourself perplexed as he attempts to start conversations with people who take him for…who? Really him or someone else? This is done very subtly, especially at the level of dialogues, the kind one carries on with people one barely knows. But can one ever really know the other and oneself? So yes, the book is presented as a mystery, but the mystery is the main character…

And to answer my own question: How good is Patrick Modiano? Very good, five stars, I highly recommend it. And I think you’ll be happily surprised what a short read it is too, featherweight, a little over 200 pages.  A small perfection…

Patrick Modiano

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The Future According to Google

Cover of "Zoolander"

The United States has historically been a laboratory of the future for the rest of the world: I remember how I was awed when I arrived in New York in the 1960s and saw what the future looked like, with gigantic highways, sprawling suburbs and televisions everywhere.

Now the US is doing it again, if you know where to look. David Leonhardt, heading The Upshot, a new New York Times venture focused on investigative and analytical journalism (and that means data-crunching), recently reported the results of a study done following a suggestion from Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian.

I bet Google’s chief economist hadn’t expected the kind of results shown in that study…

The piece, titled “Inequality and Web Search Trends – In One America, Guns and Diet. In the Other, Cameras and ‘Zoolander‘”, explains how the research was done. Serious stuff, analyzing a decade of search data county by county across the whole of the US, categorized by an income-education-health index and then comparing the results to web searches on Google to uncover people’s interests and concerns at both ends of the income distribution.

What rich people search for on Google compared to poor people.

Leonhardt summarized the picture in a couple of striking sentences: “In the hardest places to live in the United States, people spend a lot of time thinking about diets and religion. In the easiest places to live, people spend a lot of time thinking about cameras.”

The portrait is suggestive.

Rich people are concerned with acquiring the latest technology and traveling to distant lands. The poor worry about their health and look for weight-loss diets (the new poverty in America is associated with obesity).

The article concludes on a note of pessimism, highlighting the fact that the rich are “intent on passing down their way of life to the next generation, via Baby Bjorns and early access to technology.”

As noted by Leonhardt, “That last point may be the most troubling. The different subjects that occupy people’s thoughts aren’t just a window into American life today. They’re a window onto future inequality, too.”

Yes, that’s what future inequality will look like: access to new technology and round-the-world travel will be reserved to the rich and likely to be denied to the masses. Why?  Too expensive.Another NYT article from The Upshot suggests that we may all be stuck in rut: there is evidence that in climbing the social ladder, geographic location matters. The chances that a child raised in the bottom fifth will rise to the top are lowest in the “old South”, around 4% in places like Atlanta and Charlotte. Conversely, they are much better in the North, for example 33% in Willinston, North Dakota. Clearly, parental and school environment matters.

Does this sound depressing to you? To me, it does. Yet, I believe it’s important to know where we’re headed as a civilization. The 20th century saw the rise of the middle class, and that rise continues around the world, as people in developing countries are climbing out of poverty. But the middle class has stalled in America and the on-going (triple dip?) recession in Europe is not helping. It looks like the happy days of the middle class are over in the developed world…

Personally, I hope I’m wrong about that. Still, I did try to imagine our future on the basis of such trends and the result (as all those following this blog already know) can be found in my latest book “Forever Young”. My goal was simple, I did not want to write fantasy science fiction, I wanted to take a “hard” look at what our future would really be like. I only wish this NYT study had come out sooner, as I was writing my book, but at least I feel vindicated: this is confirmation that my premise is sound…Nevertheless, I still hope the trends towards inequality that we see today – especially in a book like Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” – will ultimately prove wrong.

Can the Millennials get us out of the inequality rut?

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Is Traditional Publishing Headed for a Smash-up?

Smash

Image via Wikipedia

Dear Readers,

Some of you may know me from my site on blogspot.com and I’ll try to keep you posted on both sites, with comments on politics, books, art (everything I like) and economics (everything I dislike!) – in short, our world as I see it. But since this is just a bunch of personal opinions, you’re most welcome to shoot them down!

I love a rousing discussion!

Here is my take on what is happening to the publishing world as it has to face (and survive) the tsunami of the digital revolution…If you disagree, please make comments!

The sales of e-books have outpaced printed books for the first time this year at Amazon, the number one on line bookseller in the world. People are talking about the digital revolution being something as big, nay, BIGGER than Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press around 1440.  We’re into a new age, the possibilities are infinite, everything will change!

Does that mean that the printed book is dead and that traditional publishers are on their way out?

No, I don’t believe so. I am convinced the future of publishing is anything but bleak! By the way, I’m looking at it as an economist and political analyst – not as an aspiring fiction writer (which I also happen to be, but that’s incidental – for that matter, I’m also a painter – which has nothing to do with the argument at hand…).  I just wanted to point out that I’m trying to evaluate the situation in a detached, scientific way (hum, gasp, cough).

The first thing to realize is that e-books are NOT going to eat into the current market. The pie, with the advent of digital titles, will expand. E-books will add to the book market in general, bringing in lots of new readers – people who after a first jolly experience on their i-pad or kindle will go on to buy paper books for the first time in their lives! And remember, digital editions are forever. They’re not like printed books, sitting on your local bookstores shelves for a few weeks and then gone. E-books are FOREVER! Which means they are accessible, ready to be downloaded on your e-reader anytime. You don’t have to go to the book store to order and then wait for the book to be sent by mail. No, e-books are just a click away!

Second, as with any BIG change in an industry’s parameters, expect a wave of bankruptcies and consolidations. The biggest bookstore in the US, Borders, has gone into receivership which means, inter alia, that traditional publishers have lost miles of physical shelf space for their books. Talk of a tsunami! You can expect that over the next few years, even the Big 6 (the main American publishers) will have to reconsider their marketing strategies, their costs and do everything they can to ensure their survival – perhaps even move out (gasp!) of Manhattan! And expect some to go under. That may not be fun for those involved, but it’s physiological. When structural change comes to an industry, only the fittest survive.

Bookstores, however, are at this moment taking the brunt of the storm (as shown by Borders). They need to react ASAP and become more imaginative to turn themselves into welcoming places, like Starbucks and provide coffee to attract clients or organize conferences and local contests to engage the community. There are a number of bookstores of that sort in Europe, places that straddle the Internet and offer a haven to the local community, and they seem to prosper.  Advisory services could also be provided to their clients, things like advice on e-readers, the best apps, and help them locate interesting stuff to read on Internet – that is, turn themselves into “gatekeepers” of sorts, to guide people in the jungle of e-books.

Because it’s fast becoming a jungle: there are lots and lots of titles out there. If you look at the top 100 best-selling titles on Kindle, you’ll be amazed at the BIG proportion of self-published books – I didn’t count, but at a glance, it’s much more than half! To find “good” authors (in the sense of “good read”) is becoming a well-nigh impossible enterprise. I know because I do that repeatedly for my mother who’s 97 and an avid reader (she loves her Kindle). You get the feeling that the famous “slush pile”, all those manuscripts rejected by publishers and literary agents as “unfit to print”, all of them are suddenly on sale. And, perhaps more surprisingly, they are finding customers! Yes, people do buy these books! Sure, they’re priced at $O.99 so that’s probably why people buy them. But the more successful e-authors who started at that price, have found they could jack up their price to $2.99 and more (but always well under the $9.90 borderline established by traditional publishers) and still make money…in spite of the lack of editing, poor plot structure and typos… Which goes to show that a good yarn sells more easily than “literature”.

That may be a depressing thought for some but it’s definitely a golden opportunity for others: with the expansion of the book market, a lot of “unsophisticated” first-time readers have been drawn in, and they’re the sort of people who enjoy a good story and don’t care too much about how it’s told.

This means that one of the traditional roles of publishers of printed books, i.e. being “gatekeepers” to ensure a “minimum” level of “quality”, has been seriously weakened and others could jump in the void. Magazines and papers and blogs with a big following that review books are doing that job now, but why not bookstores? And the big bookstore chains could consider providing print-on-demand services for all things digital. Indeed, that’s where the real competition for printed books might yet come from…

To sum up: with the digital revolution, everybody’s role is changing, and it’s not just bookstores that have to rethink themselves. Publishers also need to reconsider their role. They often give the impression of being on the defensive as they progressively tighten their contracts with writers and lower advances. Six-digit figures are a rarity nowadays. Publishers even cut advances up in 4 parts, meant to follow the different stages in the publishing process, and that means you  get only 1/4th of your “advance” upon signing the contract.  Sure, this is a tough business, they try to get the most out of every deal. But writers are publishers’ natural allies: writing is the source of their business. So publishers need to realize that if they stop scraping authors naked, and instead treat them right, they will make of them faithful allies. I am willing to bet that the first publishers who realize this will see their prospects turn for the better real fast. And the first thing they should consider doing is giving authors a better deal on e-book royalties and making a better job of providing supportive book marketing. Because in this Internet age, the buzz word is king, and authors, through such important blogs as Writer Beware learn real soon who are the publishers to avoid…

Because e-rights are forever and more and more writers are realizing this. And more and more are unwilling to give up returns on their books forever  when all the publishers have done is a one-time investment in them. After all, the money you have to put up front to get yourself e-published is relatively small – just about anyone can afford to do it. Of course, not everyone has the necessary on line presence and the desire to spend all that time into marketing one’s book.

Most writers would still prefer to spend most of their time writing…

So there’s a glimmer of hope for traditional or “legacy publishers”. There will be more Amanda Hockings who after establishing themselves as self-published wonders (she made one million dollars in her first year of digital self-publishing), will be coming back into their fold. And there will be probably fewer Barry Eisler walking away from them. Remember him? He is that feisty writer who refused a $ 500,000 advance from St.Martin’s Press for two books. But then, on closer examination, it wasn’t really such a good deal: $250,000 per book minus the 15% going to his agent, plus the fact that he’d get next to nothing for his e-rights. And, remember, e-rights are forever!

The real challenge for legacy publishers will be the midlist authors who can make a big buck turning their back list into e-books. Joe Konrath‘s success is an example for all midlist writers. Publishers will just have to figure out a way to get into that juicy market – and they won’t get into it unless they bend their position on e-rights. They want too much for far too long. They really should consider another model, for example putting a time frame on e-rights and allow authors to regain them after, say, 5 years, but – and that’s an important “but” – with a renewal clause for another 5 years on condition that the publisher agrees to engage in some additional marketing. That would encourage writers to sign up with them rather than go the self-publishing e-route.

AND they need to provide a service of value to the authors, in particular marketing support (that’s something writers normally don’t like to do: if you’re a writer, let’s face it, you’re an introvert, you really don’t have a salesman personality…) Publishers could easily make sure their authors get reviews, and not any kind of reviews, but good ones from respected reviewers with a known and proven following.

And they could consider doing something else too, something no one talks about much because it’s scary: I’m referring to piracy. Yes, publishers could try and provide more effective means to fight off piracy. Individual authors are not well-placed to defend themselves and few are internet-savvy. To fight off piracy requires experts. Pirates – I mean hackers – are getting better all the time and a lot of people out there, a writer’s regular readers, don’t even think that downloading a book for free is a form of criminal offense. The author has sweated over writing his book and deserves a fair $ return for his pains. Let’s face it, pirate are pirates and should be jailed. Now, in the digital world, that’s hard to do and it requires huge means to properly police the Internet. And it means publishers and e-book sellers will have to work together.

Because, let’s face it, the biggest danger the digital revolution brings to the publishing industry is PIRACY! It might yet bring together everybody: Amazon.com, traditional bookstores, e-book platforms and publishers, both those into “legacy” publishing and e-books, for the greater good of authors and their readers…But then I’m an incorrigible optimist!


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