7.31.2016

Why Referendums are Dangerous

Nobel laureate economist and best-selling author Joseph E. Stiglitz, who has just published a new terrific book, "The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe" (it's at the top of my TBR list!), told the New York Times, in response to a question about the aftermath of Brexit in Europe:

"The likelihood is there that in one country or another there will be enough support for another referendum, and an exit will occur that will begin the process of a real unraveling of the Eurozone." 

He was probably thinking of France or the Netherlands and there are others too. But just imagine the EU without France or the Netherlands, that's surely the beginning of the end...

So what he is telling us is that in Europe, we now run a very real risk of another devastating referendum, similar to Brexit.

I believe that comment certainly makes my just-published article on Impakter magazine particularly timely. In it, I argue that referendums are not a democratic panacea, on the contrary, they are highly dangerous and can be deeply destructive. I also propose a simple fix. Here is the beginning:


impakter essay: WHY A REFERENDUM IS A BAD IDEA ...And a Modest Proposal to Fix it


The first lesson from Brexit, the UK vote to leave the European Union, should have been this: that a referendum is a bad idea, it weakens democracy and leads to potentially hugely damaging political decisions.
In the economic area, bad news for Britain has already happened, the pound has plunged to its lowest historical level in thirty years and British commercial real estate is reeling, some 20 percent lower, a harbinger of a broader crisis in real estate.
Good news are few: Australia has announced it wants a free trade deal with the UK after Brexit (to replace what is now available with the EU) and you can expect other Commonwealth countries to follow suit; and there is Japanese SoftBank’s recent acquisition of ARM, the technologically advanced British chip designer, a $32 billion investment in the British economy, that, oddly enough, did not provoke cries of anguish from nationalists who (normally) do not like to see “British jewels” sold to foreigners (though it seems that investors in Japan have serious doubts about the deal). But then, the Brexiteers needed to exhibit some good business news in the face of the coming unavoidable recession as the UK slowly exits the EU (it will take at least two years).
Threats to Great Britain in the political arena are far greater: Britain risks losing Scotland and North Ireland. The Scots are already talking about a referendum for independence (that would allow them to join the EU) and Ireland is evoking the possibility of re-uniting with North Ireland, just as East and West Germany joined together. If all this comes to pass, Great Britain will be no more, in its place we’ll have “little England.” Hardly the result that even the most ardent Brexiteer could have wished for…
Yet, in spite of the obvious economic and political risks, the populist far-right parties on the European continent have all latched onto the Brexit example, eager to emulate UKIP’s success with its Leave campaign. They are all clamoring for referendums from Marine Le Pen (Front National) in France to Geert Wilders (Party for Freedom) in the Netherlands, not to mention Germany, Italy, Spain etc.
And matters are not helped by the continuing avalanche of ISIL-inspired attacks in Europe, from the massacre in Nice on Bastille Day to the Afghan teenager wielding a murdering axe in a German train. Such news is fodder to the populist/chauvinist mill.
Add to the mix the extraordinary passivity of our political leaders, with German Chancellor Merkel in the forefront who clearly likes to sit on her hands while her Finance Minister Schäuble shoots down any attempt to strengthen the Eurozone; his chief concern is to defend German banks and German interests and he does not see it as Germany’s duty to sustain the weaker partners in the EU in a collaborative union, even though Germany is Europe’s strongest economy: in fact, collaboration is not in his vocabulary. There is no question that he is the least “European” of all German politicians, and in fact, he would be in good company with Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, all bent on shooting down the European Project. Meanwhile, the EU Commission in Brussels keeps mum, trying to stay out of the political melee, and in so doing, increasingly looking like the culprit.
This is why an exasperated population sees referendums as the solution, the only way to push politicians into action. Referendums are seen as “direct democracy” at work, giving voice to the people in a way that normal elections do not.
If only it were so.
IN THE PHOTO: ANGELA MERKEL SPEAKS AT THE EUROPEAN PEOPLE’S PARTY SUMMIT. PHOTO CREDIT:FLICKR/EPP 

1.    THE MANY WAYS REFERENDUMS CAN MISLEAD VOTERS

A close examination of how a referendum actually works shows something radically different: Far from being a democratic tool, a referendum is an extremely dangerous political exercise that is open to ugly demagogic manipulations, and thus leads to unexpected and unwanted results.
In our Internet-connected society, with Facebook, Twitter and tabloids sharing the voters’ attention like never before, the level of “information noise” is, as a result, higher than ever before, and the “noise,” unfortunately, tends to hide the “information.” In our current technological climate, with news valued by the number of “clicks” and “shares”, information is debased and a referendum is an increasingly dangerous tool, open to distortions.

HARD FACTS GIVE WAY TO NON-FACTS

Voters are not better informed when disinformation is as important as facts – as we saw in the case of Brexit. Consider what happened during the campaign. At first, it looked like it would turn into an interesting public debate, with the facts about staying in or out, brought out in the open.
Every major think tank in Britain and in the world, including the IMF and the OECD, pitched in with their complex economic analyses. But a month before the vote, something happened. The facts turned out to be annoying, even boring, there were too many of them, too much to read, too much to digest.
A large number of voters were turned off and preferred to follow their instinct. It was more emotionally satisfying to show dislike for your Polish or Italian neighbor (finally you could do it without incurring disapproval from your other neighbors). It was easier to believe in non-facts that promised satisfactory results.
Of all the false promises the most famous one was the idea that with Brexit the UK would get back the £350 million it pays to the EU every week and invest it in its National Health system – a patently impossible promise to maintain on two counts: the amount paid to the EU was half that claimed by the Leave Campaign, and once Brexit kicks in, all funds available to the government would need to be used to defend the economy – clearly nothing would be left for the Health system.
In the last three weeks running up to the referendum, far from having a sedate, informed and civil debate, we were treated to a Brexit vs. Remain brawl in the best (loud) American tradition. The Brexiteers were pumped up by a wave of phobia for foreigners and immigrants, and expressed heights of racism and nativism not seen before in public. All this, alas, culminated in the murder by a deranged nationalist of MP Jo Cox, a young mother of two whose only fault was her openly-expressed belief that the UK should remain in the EU.

To read the rest, click here.

7.04.2016

Rome has Become a Mess!

In the 40 years I have lived in Rome, I have never seen the city is such bad shape, graffiti vandalizing graceful, ancient buildings everywhere, piles of dirt and s--t on the sidewalks, potholes in the streets, large enough to trap a scooter's wheel and kill the driver.

A friend of mine, Giuseppe Bonanno, in desperation, put up this blog post that I reproduce here - if you read Italian, you'll find it a good, rousing read...though depressing: When will the newly elected Mayor of Rome, Ms. Raggi do something?

And she's so new to the political game (she comes from the 5 Star protest party) and young (just 37), can she defeat "Mafia Capitale" as it is known here, i.e. the incredible corruption that has been linking local politicians to the Mafia for decades and that has led Rome to this final, dramatic juncture?

So far, what she's done is meet with the Pope, here's the video:


Here's Giuseppe Bonanno's blog post, if you want to read this on his blog, click here:

DEGRADO A ROMA DENTRO LE MURA DI SAN GIOVANNI

Di fronte alla residenza dell'Ambasciata Inglese e nelle strade che la circondano sembra di stare a Beirut o al Cairo. Le Amministrazioni Capitoline passano ma il degrado rimane ed aumenta. 1^ Municipio-EXIT?

Adesso abbiamo i M5S. Faranno qualcosa? Sarà nel loro Raggi-o di azione?

Oggi 4 luglio 2016, su via Carlo Felice sul marciapiede di sinistra verso Piazza San Giovanni é comparso di nuovo il mercatino degli abusivi. La Polizia assente ingiustificato. idem per i Vigili Urbani.

Le strade intorno sono fatiscenti: i marciapiedi  su via Piatti, ormai in terra battuta confinano senza soluzione di continuità con l'asfalto e le buche della strada.

Il palazzo di proprietà della Banca d'Italia é sempre occupato e gli abitanti vivono a spese del Comune, locazione, servizi, di energia elettrica, gas, acqua, raccolta rifiuti?? etc. Non sappiamo se il Comune passa pure il telefonino? Ed il Cittadino paga.... 
 L'Ama non raccoglie le immondizie sui marciapiedi - troppo lavoro di gomito per gli spazzini che non esistono più. E se usassero i rifugiati dandogli uno stipendio? Lo fanno in Germania ed in Olanda?



Il Presidente   del "Comitato di quartiere Villa Wolkonsky - Roma Esquilino" denuncia l'assenza permanente delle autorità:

"invio la presente alla Questura di Roma, al Comune di Roma ed al 1 Municipio di Roma sollecitando il concreto riscontro alla richiesta - già da tempo formalizzata - di istituire una postazione fissa della Polizia di Roma Capitale  o dei Carabinieri  a via Carlo Felice vicino ai giardinetti, ove ogni mattina si radunano persone poco raccomandabili e zingari che vendono oggetti di dubbia provenienza.


Molte persone che si lamentano vengono aggredite e minacciate ed allorquando interviene una pattuglia della Polizia o dei Carabinieri; questi "signori" scappano e si vanno a nascondere nelle strade laterali, aspettando che i militi vanno via per poi continuare la loro attività illegittima.

La grave problematica si risolve predisponendo una postazione delle Forze di sicurezza in loco oppure una squadra di volontari in pensione dei Carabinieri e/o  delle Forze di Polizia ( N.B. in divisa) in modo tale che la zona venga sempre controllata al fine di inibire l'attività predetta. 

Molti abitanti della zona -da tempo- si adoperano per chiedere l'intervento delle competenti Autorità ma la situazione - ad oggi- non è cambiata ed il degrado incombe in modo palese ed obiettivo, nonostante qualcuno dica che siano stati effettuati dei lavori di rifacimento dei giardini per un importo di oltre 200 mila euro.

Ad oggi si è aggiunto il delicatissimo ed urgente problema della sicurezza stradale e della presenza di pericolosissime buche in via Ludovico di Savoia.

La strada risulta chiusa parzialmente proprio per la presenza di tali buche, che risultano essere un pericolo per l'incolumità di tutti coloro che si trovano a passare in zona.

Ciò precisato, 
                                                 chiedo espressamente 

alla Questura di Roma, al Comune di Roma ed al 1 Municipio di Roma di intervenire e di risolvere le problematiche indicate.
Ringraziando in anticipo e restando in attesa del richiesto riscontro, porgo distinti saluti.

                                 
Richiesta fatta dal Presidente del Comitato di quartiere Villa Wolkonsky- Roma Esquilino

MORE PICTURES OF ROMAN DECAY:




6.24.2016

The Brexit Dream Likely to Turn into a Nightmare


I was involved in an experiment on Impakter: we launched a "Brexit Opinion Tracker" gathering the opinions and statements of major influencers and politicians as the Brexit referendum unfolded on 23 June, using the articles uploaded on our social media platform Thingser under the hashtag "Brexit" - this way we tracked what was happening in real time. 

Then, today, with the stunning vote announced, I quickly dashed off a "wrap up note" to assess the situation. Here it is:


Wrap-Up Note: The Brexit Dream Likely to Turn into a Nightmare

While the vote on 23 June was carried out with quiet and dignity, as exit polls were (wisely) banned which contributed to the maintenance of order, the outcome is stunning: 52% for leaving the EU, over 17 million voters, against 15.9 million for the Remain camp.
UKIP's secretary Nigel Farage exulted, "“Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom.” Unfortunately, that dream could quickly turn into a nightmare as the predictions of a deep economic downturn become real.

And the downturn has already started. Prime Minister Cameron immediately announced his resignation, opening up a government crisis in the UK.

Shock waves hit the EU as well. A quick reaction came from Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, who said the assembly would hold an emergency session on Tuesday to address Brexit.  The European Council President Donald Tusk also announced the 27 EU bloc is "determined to keep our unity" and will assess a course of action "to avoid a chain reaction" (as Martin Schulz put it) in a EU summit meeting next week - or at least on the margins of it, as he plans to schedule meetings with EU leaders without Prime Minister Cameron.

When markets opened in Asia on the morning after (24 June), stock prices plummeted, along with the British pound. In a way, this is surprising, financial markets are rarely wrong and they had bet on the Remain camp, yet, this time, they turned out to be quite wrong. Markets had, it seemed, not given sufficient weight to the emotions the Leave campaign had stirred up in the British population, playing on fears of immigration.

So, Brexit was in the cards and to the end it was a very close call, with the 52-48 ratio seemingly reversed at first, in the early hours after the polls had closed, in favor of Remain.
Yet, sadly, the murder last week of Jo Cox (41), mother of two, a Labour politician who strongly supported Remain, did not change the cards.

Immigration was the biggest ISSUE in the campaign

The biggest issue aside from xenophobia, nativism and even racism as we have seen from UKIP members. Objectively, with net migration to Britain of 330,000 people in 2015, more than half of them coming from the European Union, there was little Mr. Cameron could do. And, as argued again and again, while  immigrants contributed more to the economy and to tax receipts than they cost, many Brits felt that their "national identity was under assault and that the influx was putting substantial pressure on schools, health care and housing."

The real problem is that the European project, instead of being seen as a solution to war and poverty intended to ensure prosperity and security, is seen as a threat to "national identity".

You'll find the rest of the analysis on Impakter, click here.

6.22.2016

Google's Digital News Initiative Decrypted

Another one of my articles published on Impakter - this one about a fascinating new initiative that Google has launched (for the time being) only in Europe, to support the news industry (it will probably come to America later, once it has shown it works). Also included in the initiative, a fund to finance innovation, and the closing date for applications is 11 July. Anyone thinking of applying should read this - while others may be intrigued, wondering what Google is up to...



GOOGLE’S DIGITAL NEWS INITIATIVE: SUPPORTING INNOVATION OR WOOING EUROPEAN JOURNALISM?

Ever wondered about the myth of start-ups launched in a garage?

The story of Google’s founding proves that it’s not entirely a myth: the story starts in 1994 with the launch of the Digital Library Initiative (DLI) by three US government agencies, the National Science Foundation, NASA and DARPA. The aim was to promote innovation in “digital library research”, i.e. find ways to improve access and use of the information that by then was already piling up on the Web.

Among the first six winners of the new DLI awards, was a clever Web page indexing project, the brainchild of two gifted Stanford University students, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin.
The two built a prototype called BackRub based on Paige’s foundational insight that what matters in page ranking are the links between those pages because they are made by humans and therefore reflect at least some form or judgment or assessment about their use. With BackRub they tested their PageRank system, initially on 24 million pages. It was so successful that they got $1 million additional funding and by 1998, Page and Brin had moved their growing hardware facility from the Stanford campus into a friend’s garage in Menlo Park and started Google, Inc.

Over a year ago, Google took a leaf from its founding history and launched the Digital News Initiative (DNI) in Europe.

The similarities with DLI cannot be missed, they’re both “digital initiatives” with the avowed aim to support innovation with funding; and in DNI’s case, as Google puts it, to promote “high quality journalism through technology and innovation”. Awards are called “projects” and among the three types of projects financed by the DNI Fund, you have “prototype projects” going to individuals – while the other two types of “projects” are reserved to news publishers (see box for details of how the DNI funding works).

Read the rest on Impakter, click here

6.17.2016

WILL THE UK REALLY EXIT THE EUROPEAN UNION? WHAT BREXIT MEANS

On June 1,2016, Impakter published this essay that I wrote after many months of following Brexit, uploading onto Thingser all the articles that I found of interest, over 60 of them (see here - many were - and still are - uploaded by other Thingser members which I found very useful for my research). From my standpoint as a dispassionate observer of political and cultural events, I honestly attempted to really understand Brexit, i.e. Britain's exit from the UK, something that could really happen on 23 June, as the Brits go to vote on the Brexit referendum.

As the date gets nearer and the pro-Brexit camp surges ahead (according to the latest news), this article is ever more relevant and I hope you'll find it useful to understand better what is going and what the real risks are - very high, not just for Europe but also for America. Should the UK choose to leave the EU, the consequences are truly incalculable and devastating, for the UK first, but the rest of the world too.



IMPAKTER ESSAY: THE UGLY SIDE OF BREXIT

STAY IN OR LEAVE THE EU? THE CONSEQUENCES FOR BRITAIN AND THE EU

June 1, 2016

The European Union is facing a perfect storm and possibly its greatest test since its six original members, France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries, began the European Project in 1957 with the signature of the Treaty of Rome.
What the EU did not need at this point was “Brexit”, the possibility of Britain voting to leave the EU on June 23, the date set by Prime Minister Cameron for the referendum on leaving the EU.
Consider the situation:
  • a long-simmering Greek debt crisis that has battered the Euro since 2010 is coming up for yet another call for bailout funds in July with Germany unwilling to consider the only possible solution, i.e. debt relief (as proposed by the IMF);
  • the double-dip recession – a fate the US escaped thanks to the quantitative easing measures taken by the Federal Reserve but that could not be replicated by the European Central Bank due to a relentless German opposition, led by the German Finance Minister Schauble who has a pre-Keynesian fear of inflation and a fixation on “balancing the budget” at all costs;
  • continuing high levels of unemployment everywhere, especially among the young (up to 50 percent in Spain and Greece are jobless) and harrowing poverty in some places (in Greece, the national health system has broken down leaving the poor with no protection);
  • unprecedented flows of refugees, well over one million entering the EU last year, as the war in Syria took a turn for the worse with the Russian bombings.
Even the relatively good news of renewed (if weak) EU growth this year has not succeeded in slowing down the rise of a vicious form of nationalistic populism across the continent. New parties on the extreme right have been loudly calling for a denial of asylum and closure of frontiers. Unfortunately, they have been heard by feckless politicians too fearful to stand up for their convictions (possibly with the exception of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though she too has lately weakened her stance). And we are seeing this even in countries that not so long ago were very liberal, like the Netherlands and France.
Remarkably, the only country that does not seem to have veered in this ugly direction is Italy – possibly because it was the first EU member to bear the brunt of refugee flows, as far back as 1998, and it has learned to cope with it, all by itself for a long time as other EU members looked on, unwilling to lend a hand.
But this is a small bright spot in the whole picture.
The overall result of all these unfortunate events is inescapable: what was originally a cautious distancing from Brussels and the European Project calling for an ever “closer union”, has now turned into an unbridgeable chasm, as the Schengen rules for visa-free travel are suspended again and again, even between close neighbors with historically friendly relations like Italy and France.

Read the rest on Impakter, click here.

6.15.2016

AUTHOREA: A STARTUP FOR SCIENTISTS TO SHARE AND ADVANCE RESEARCH

Another one of my articles published on Impakter - I interviewed the founder of Authorea, a startup for scientists to share and advance research. Here is his picture, his name is Alberto Pepe, he's a young Italian astrophysicist who now lives in New York:


And here is the start of the article:

You’d think that writing scientific papers today, with all the digital tools at hand, would be a breeze. But you’d be wrong. Scientific work is not helped along by the Internet but challenged by it.

Why?

Because scientists, for the most part, still follow traditional methods for sharing their research findings. Or, as young Italian astrophysicist Alberto Pepe put it in an interview with Il Corriere della Sera, a major Italian daily, “Scientists today produce 21st century research; they use the writing tools of the 20th century and force their writing into formats similar to those of the 18th century.”

In short, the way scientific articles are written goes back 400 years, and the ability to share information is stuck in a 1980s level of technology. Most of the scientific information published on major journals like Nature, Science, or the Lancet is behind paywalls; universities and research institutions spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year for subscriptions.

Hence, the birth of the “open science” movement to try and break down the walls. But to breakdown paywalls is not enough. What is required are practical tools to do it, tools that, taken as a package, go well beyond what is normally available on the Internet.

This is where Authorea comes in. Started as a publishing platform dedicated to scientists, it is the brainchild of Alberto Pepe and Nathan Jenkins, a physicist from California. The two had met ten years ago at CERNin Geneva, the prestigious European Center for Nuclear Research; harassed by the drudgery of having to exchange drafts back and forth on collaborative research papers and disappointed to see all the hard data-crunching work disappear once the papers were published, they had often discussed what could be done to advance scientific work.

The rest of the story is on Impakter, click here to read.

5.05.2016

A Millennial Search: The Yoga of Max's Discontent - Book Review and Author Interview

Another one of my articles published on Impakter, the magazine for Millennials:

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TIGHT AND SLACK – A MILLENNIAL SEARCH

CLAUDE FORTHOMME on May 3, 2016 at 6:02 PM

  • Life Models: “Tight and Slack” and the Search for Transcendence.
  • Karan Bajaj Talks about Life and his Latest Novel “The Yoga of Max’s Discontent”,  published by  Riverhead Books/Penguin House, out on 3 May 2016  
  • Book Review and Author Interview
A book about man’s quest for himself,  The Yoga of Max’s Discontent, is a book you should read, for many reasons.

16903084536_c05f8d14a6_b
IN THE PHOTO: MOUNT VERNON AND THE BRONX – END OF THE 2 LINE AT 241 ST AND MOUNT VERNON
First, an arresting premise: the main character, Max, a tall, young man in his late twenties, is the personification of the American dream – from the dark despair of the Bronx projects where he was born to the glitter of Wall Street. A first-generation immigrant, there’s no father in the family, just a sister and a mother, a Greek woman who earns a meagre living from housecleaning and sacrifices herself to see her children educated. He manages to win fellowships to the best schools, gets a Harvard degree and lands a highly paid job on Wall Street. His mother dies, the American dream falls apart.

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IN THE PHOTO: HARVARD UNIVERSITY WIDENER LIBRARY
Second, a remarkably  terse, direct way of presenting the yogis’ complex belief system, complete with Max’s own personal doubts as they crop up – and that approach certainly succeeds in drawing in any unbelieving reader. The book is written from Max’s point of view: with his mother passing away,”now that he no longer had his mother’s voice in his head prompting him to become someone, nothing stopped him from seeking the same insight.” The “same insight” referred to here, is the yogis’ belief as reported to Max in the simple words of a recently arrived Indian immigrant who is manning an open-air food cart on a Manhattan street corner. Max has come across him after his mother’s funeral. The night is wintry and bitter, the Indian cart vendor is naked to the waist, apparently heedless of the cold; he certainly looks something of a yogi. The man tells him that yogis believe “that the whole world exists in opposites: up and down, cold and hot, darkness and light, night and day, summer and winter, growth and decay. So if there is birth, age, suffering, sorrow and death, then there must be something that is un-born, un-aging, un-ailing, sorrowless and deathless – immortal as it were. They want to find it”.

The rest on Impakter, click here.

4.20.2016

"Severed Head" on Wattpad

The #JustWriteIt 30 day writing challenge, #EarthLove edition organized by Wattpad has a new participant!




Yes, little old me, and this is the presentation on Wattpad of my new novella, made to celebrate Earth Day coming up on April 22nd. EarthDay. org wants you to plant billions of trees to green the Earth, actually 50,000 more trees by 22 April, do donate! For my part, I just want you to enjoy my new novella and maybe, just maybe, think a little a bit about our common future and our home, planet Earth - hey, remember, it's like your own body, it can't be replaced!

#EarthLove!

Here's the pitch for my novella:

The end of the world: 2116, the year when the last spaceship loaded with humans leaves for Kepler 457, Earth's twin, virgin and new, ready to be settled. 
In that ship: Julie, beautiful, young and alone, the man she loves has chosen to stay behind. She has submitted herself to a harrowing procedure to take the flight, a procedure Dan could not bear to face in spite of his love for her (no spoilers!). He takes refuge on Antarctica that has turned into a lush archipelago, similar to Japan, now that all the ice has melted. 
The unexpected happens, Julie and Dan meet again, but it's not a happy reunion. Julie has another life partner. Can Dan ever win back Julie? 
This is a sci-fi piece set 100 years from now, it's about saving the Earth, it's about love, and even Donald Trump makes a surprise "guest appearance"...Enjoy, let me know what you think! 
  NOTE: For this novella, the author is using her real name (Claude Forthomme) - her past work, ranging from poetry to novels, may be found under her pen name, Claude Nougat.

And here's the opening:
I knew she had done it, we had talked – and fought – about it so many times. But it wasn't until I saw her inch along towards me, one among thousands on the conveyor belt, that the full impact of her decision hit me. I felt faint and had to sit down.
A severed head floating in a glass case.

To read the rest, click here 

If you like it, please share, here's an example of a tweet but feel free to tweet whatever you want!


4.13.2016

FISH FARMING: A WAY TO ADAPT TO CLIMATE CHANGE?

Another one of my articles on Impakter:




FARMING IN WATER: THE CHALLENGES OF AQUACULTURE

A Conversation with Michael New, World Expert on Freshwater Prawn Farming and Founder of Aquaculture without Frontiers (AwF)
For a long time, aquaculture was the foster child of agriculture, but now it has come of age: output has more than tripled over the past 20 years, making it the world’s fastest-growing food producing sector.
After the conquest of land, farming is conquering water, a much greater challenge.
With a production close to 80 million tons annually, fish farming provides the world with 17 percent of its animal protein. The lion’s share of aquaculture production, some 90 percent, comes from developing countries, and while most fish farms are in Asia, aquaculture’s highest growth rates have of late been in Africa and South and Central America.

THE FISH FARMING REVOLUTION

Developing countries get more revenue from farmed fish exports than from meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined. China however, remains the big player, exporting over twice as much in value terms as Norway that clocks in second.
But rankings are shifting with new entrants. In 2014, Thailand, historically the world’s third-largest exporter of fish products, was surpassed by Vietnam, thanks to the rapid market acceptance of itspangasius production, a freshwater white fish that competes successfully with sea-based speciessuch as cod and the freshwater channel catfish produced in the Americas.
Fish farming is fast becoming big business and fish trade requires regulation more than ever to reassure consumers. According to Audun Lem, Deputy-Director in FAO’s Fisheries Policy Division, one reason aquaculture has surged ahead of open-sea fishing is that its production methods are typically “far less seasonal and volatile.” This allows for easier access to insurance or credit – for example, there are now salmon futures – and even “tailored solutions” such as the production of fattier salmon better adapted for smoking.
PHOTO: (ABOVE) PANGASIUS HARVEST – VIETNAM. SOURCE: VIETNAM PANGASIUS ASSOCIATION.
As aquaculture production becomes more reliable, longer-term investmentS can be made in a number of innovative techniques such as selective breeding, cold-storage facilities and methods to minimize fish waste. This opens the way for “fewer but larger operators,” a process well advanced with species such as marine shrimp, tilapia, Atlantic salmon and European sea bass and bream.
An example of one such large operator is Sino Agro Food, inc., an American company operating in China. It is currently establishing mega farms in China to meet the demands of the Chinese middle class, estimated to be around 500-600 million; one project in particular, in Zhongshan, is unprecedented in size and scope, the largest fish farm in the world, covering some 600 acres and using the most advanced water-recycling technology.


...To read the rest, click here. I believe aquaculture is one of the solutions when climate change hits and normal farming goes under stress, let me know what you think!

3.08.2016

Europe: Time to Clean Up Your Act!

Student debate held at Speak Up November 2015 (video here)

Seven months ago, I blogged about the ignominious stance of Ms. Merkel's Germany, weighing down on poor little Greece, stripping it bare so it would repay its debt - in short, dangerously rocking the Euro boat and nearly sinking it. That post was titled: "Shame on You Germany, You are Killing the European Project".

How times have changed in just seven short months!

Now Europe is facing the twin challenge of Brexit and the refugee crisis.

Brexit - if it actually leads to the UK's exit from the EU and, for now, the chances that it will are about even - could open the way for other Euro-skeptical countries to leave, particularly East European countries like Poland and Hungary that seem to have forgotten how happy they once were to escape from the Soviet Empire.

The refugee crisis has seen an extraordinary change of heart in Merkel: all of a sudden, she has turned into Europe's paladin, fighting for a generous, dignified humanitarian stand (in fact, the only one that would do justice to Europe's values). By contrast, East and Central European countries, in a selfish, amoral and ungenerous fit, led by Hungary and Poland in this case too, are fighting Merkel and closing their borders with razor-thin walls, reminiscent of the infamous Berlin Wall.

This is a continent truly divided: on its western and eastern borders, EU members are hitting hard at the European project, while at the center, particularly in Germany, it has to valiantly grapple with the influx of over a million refugees and economic migrants.

The crisis is not longer at its doors, it's within. Yet, in spite of the deadly urgency, the EU is still grappling in the dark, EU meeting after EU summit, for a solution.

Paralyzed.

Why? Are all our politicians stupid, don't they realize that if they do nothing, voters at home will make them pay? Or is it the EU institutional framework that is causing paralysis? That framework was carefully constructed to preserve "sovereignty" so that no country joining the Union would lose one shred of its precious "national identity".

Result? Political paralysis. Inability to take any decisions. Focus on irrelevant details (like the length of bananas or wrapping mozzarella cheese in paper) rather than keeping an eye on the main road.

Of all the institutional stupidities, the worst offender is the EU presidential system: here, since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, we have two "presidents" of Europe, one for the EU Council who is full time - first it was the Belgian Herman van Rompuy; now, since December 2014, it is Poland's Donald Tusk -  and then we have a continuing six-month rolling presidency as each EU member country takes its turn at the helm. The next EU presidency falls to Slovakia.

And Slovakia in its recent elections has taken a turn away from Europe: its parties are dangerously anti-European. If you don't believe me, read this excellent analysis in the New York Times: Slovakia's Governing Party Loses Majority as Far Right Makes Gains.

My question is: why do we need a rotating presidency of EU member countries if we have a European President of the Council, a man who presides over the Council that consists of the heads of states or government of EU members as well as the President of the European Commission? Why is this President that comes closest to an individual selected by ALL European citizens (since he is elected by the European Parliament), why is he set aside every six months by whatever country that happens to take over the "EU presidency"?

This is a perfect recipe for political paralysis.

What kind of game are our politicians playing at? Obviously, this is a way to have more juicy positions to fill their pockets as they "rush to Brussels". But it is at the clear expense of European citizens and tax contributors. Slovakia, once it is sitting in the presidential driving seat next July, can be counted upon to at best do nothing and leave the European machine stalled, and at worst, to promote its own anti-European agenda and force the European machine to backtrack.

Time to put a stop to this game and reform the EU institutions. Unifying Europe is a management matter: countries will need to leave behind  chauvinistic nationalism in order to rise up to the challenges and make decisions. Solutions will never be reached as long as countries cling to their antiquated national identity.

To begin with: cancel the six-month presidency turn-over game.  This is the only way to have a real European Union President. Someone we know is dedicated to the European project. Someone who will push it forward and not stall it - as Slovakia no doubt will.

It's only a start, but it would be a good start. Your views?

Update: Turkey is suddenly playing tough on EU demands to help it stem migrant flows - a stiff bargain that reveals how weak the EU really is. "EU Welcomes Bold Turkey Plan to Stop Migrants" is the way Reuters titled it (see here) EU "welcomes"? "Bold Turkey Plan"? In fact, the Turks simply asked for twice the money!

3.01.2016

Poverty in America vs. Poverty in India: The Making of Bestsellers?

I just wrote this article and uploaded it on Thingser, the only social network that lets you do this - write an article and post it on the platform - if you don't believe me, try doing this on Facebook!
It comes with the Thingser logo as a featured image to draw attention to this special feature:

And here's the article:

POVERTY IN AMERICA vs. POVERTY IN INDIA: A JUICY SUBJECT FOR BESTSELLERS?

 

Featured image on NYT review of Evicted, published February 26, 2016

 A book about poverty, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond, a sociologist and Harvard University professor and Co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project, was defined by the New York Times as "an astonishing book". Before going on sale on March 1, 2016, it had already 23 positive "customer reviews" on Amazon. The publisher, Crown Publishers, is ensuring this will be a smashing hit, including pricing the hardcover edition lower than the digital edition. The objective? Echo Katherine Boo's success with her 3-year study of a Mumbai slum. Here are the reasons why such a book, in spite of its dark, depressing content, is very likely to make it as a major best seller and perhaps even as a future blockbuster movie.   

In a recent and impassioned review of Matthew Desmond's latest book, Evicted:Poverty and Profit in the American City, to be published shortly (on 1 March 2016, Crown Publishers), the New York Times wryly noted: "Poverty in America has become a lucrative business, with appalling results".

The author of the review is Barbara Ehrenreich, the noted political activist who was perhaps the first one to publish a best seller about the subject of poverty,  Nickel and Dimed that came out in 2001.

It caused a stir and inspired others to follow in her path, including Adam Shepard with Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25 and the Search for the American Dream and Charles Platt with his blog "Boing, Boing".

Ms. Ehrenreich is also the founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project (EHRP) dedicated to "supporting journalism, photo and video about economic struggle". EHRP is run by editor-in-chief Alissa Quart, a professor at Columbia University's School of Journalism and author of a socially-oriented non-fiction book Branded: the Buying and Selling of Teenagers .

Published in 2003, it was considered a "substantive follow-up to Naomi Klein's No Logo" (Publishers' Weekly).

In 2012, Katherine Boo, a New Yorker journalist and recipient of a Pulitzer prize, erupted on this American scene focused with her best selling book about poverty in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum .

It instantly earned praise from everyone that counts (1,851 customer reviews on Amazon, over 8,000 reviews on Goodreads) and an accolade from best-selling author Junot Diaz on the New York Times, calling it "a book of extraordinary intelligence and humanity...beyond groundbreaking". 

What have all these authors in common?

They all did something unusual...

Click here to read the rest.

2.25.2016

Writers: Don't be Afraid of Your Plot!


I was recently reminded how often a story doesn't go far enough, and as a result, it simply fails. 


The thought came to me as I watched a film last night on Netflix, Viaggio Sola (I Travel Alone or A Five Star Life), the work of writer/director Maria Sole Tognazzi (a rare woman director!) with a couple of friend writers (Francesca Marciano e Ivan Cotroneo) - all in their forties and unmarried.

The film, done on a tiny budget and released in 2013, met with restrained praise abroad (here and here) and somewhat warmer praise at home, in Italy (here and here) . And it ended with a 6.3 rating on IMDB. Nothing earth-shaking but respectable.

Why was this film (and story) not a blockbuster?

It has a great premise: it's about a woman who works as an inspector, verifying the quality of five star hotels across the world - the film starts with the Crillon in Paris. She has chosen a life of freedom and luxury over marriage and family.

Big themes.

And they transcend gender: one could easily imagine a man doing her job. Would a man in the same circumstances - a job that requires high levels of business traveling - handle better his personal life? Maybe so, but this is a question Ms. Tognazzi doesn't address, her focus is on the woman.

And the film has impeccable photography and actors. If you haven't seen the film, here's the trailer, it gives a fair idea of the "tone" of the film:



The woman, Irene (played beautifully by Margherita Buy who won a David di Donatello award for it) is a little mature, even fanée and predictably very solitary, due to the nature of her work that constantly takes her away from her life partner (who, just as predictably, has an affair with another, more available woman - she doesn't travel - who eventually is expecting his child).

Irene accepts that the price of her life style is not having children but it grates on her; that glossy five star hotel life feels frozen, alienating - all the more so because in her job as an inspector she has to constantly size it up rather than enjoy it.

The film was streaming faultlessly, building to a climax when Irene meets Kate, a sister soul, as they both lounge lazily around in the luxury spa of a 5 star hotel in Berlin. Kate, equally fanée is a bitingly bright English anthropologist and amateur philosopher who suggests they leave behind the luxury world of their hotel and spend the evening together in a loud, raucous Turkish restaurant that she promises her will be full of real life - not the "deceit" of all this luxury.

So there you are, expecting fireworks at the Turkish restaurant, maybe a Turkish macho type will disrupt the evening, maybe the two women will end up in bed, maybe not (too soon? too cliché, more twists needed?).

But the next scene is a total surprise: Irene is not with her new friend Kate dining on exotic Turkish food; she's still in her luxury hotel, and she is apparently having her usual lonely breakfast among the crystal and porcelain, the chandeliers and the white linen.

What happened to Kate? Irene soon finds out she's dead, maybe from a heart attack, in any case it's unexpected. And that throws Irene in a spin, she starts questioning her life, she panics. The end (no spoilers given here) is excellent, with some humorous touches (again, no spoilers). But the film doesn't quite make it, it doesn't take on that added dimension needed for a blockbuster.

I'm totally convinced that if that scene at the Turkish restaurant - a scene we had been led to expect - had been played out, this film would be a classic today. A low-class, warm and human scene with perhaps "osé" sexual overtones would have carried the film onto another level, providing a much needed contrast to the frozen perfection of high-class luxury. Kate could still die her unexpected death and the film end the way it did, but it would have happened after that Turkish scene - and with the added bonus that for us, as viewers, we would have come to know Kate better and would have emotionally felt her death. As it is now, we don't really care that she died.

In other words, fellow writers, don't ever be afraid of carrying your ideas onto their logical end!