Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “December, 2010”

Don’t Blame The President

Personally I don’t blame the President. I know, I know, I’ve just lost half my potential audience (at least those in the US). So let me just add, I’m not sure that the once owner of the Texas Rangers is to blame either (and now I’ve lost the Texans).


I blame Aaron Sorkin. You can’t create seven seasons of brilliance, of optimism, of government making progress. It is simply not fair. It was a tease. I am, of course, referring to West Wing. It was so easy to watch while you had stodgy Republican governance. West Wing was about a visionary liberal President, whose staff was able to maneuver through the intransigence of opposition.

Fast-forward a few years and fiction has become reality…well sort of. We have a liberal and visionary President, but reality has a tougher script. Now you find that it is not so easy to negotiate ideas in to law and implementation.

West Wing generated a huge following. We recognized that some episodes were brilliant while others were merely excellent. We learned that most of the characters were far from perfect and sometimes the plot didn’t always have a happy ending. But we never stopped following season after season.

I don’t understand how someone can vote in the Obama Administration one moment, showing their disgust and discontent for a recession built upon at least two terms of fiscal mismanagement and blatant greed. Then they watch as the party who held the reins for most of the past decade, do their best to sabotage any realistic economic strategy without suggesting any constructive alternatives. Finally, a mere 20 months afterwards, these memory-challenged citizens have now created the perfect government framework to lead us nowhere but to an age of stagnation.

West Wing is no more. Seven seasons is all we have.  Now it is just a question of reruns and fond memories. Unfortunately, TiVo-ing government is not a luxury that any of us can afford.


Here’s to a year of change we all need to move forward.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

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Darfur and The Stove From Berkeley

Five years ago, the US Government sent a scientist from Berkeley to Darfur to try to find a solution to a grave problem facing families in displacement camps. Here is the amazing story of Ashok Gadgil and the Darfur-Berkeley stove. While the KQED story is a bit dated (they have succeeded in distributing several thousand stoves) it explains the whole story so well.

The women have to walk for up to several hours a day, three-five times a week, just to collect enough firewood for cooking. During these treks they were often subjected to sexual assault and abuse.

Ashok Gadgil and his colleagues collaborated with a group of women to design the Berkeley-Darfur Stove. It is a simple fuel-efficient stove that enables the women to make considerably less dangerous journeys. Instead of going out 4-5  times a week, they were now going to just once a week. It also helps prevent exhaustion and allows them to spend more time with their families.

In addition, the stove saves money and food rations that are often sacrificed to buy fuel because the stove uses half as much firewood as traditional cooking methods. Moreover it limits the harmful emissions that contribute to global warming, as well as toxic pollutants that cause respiratory diseases such as pneumonia.

Using the stove will save an estimated $150 per year in fuel costs, with the lifespan of the stove being approximately five years.

Each stove is made from sheet metal pieces that are stamped out in India. These flat-kits are shipped to Sudan where they are assembled by the Sustainable Action Group, a Sudanese non-governmental organization affiliated with Oxfam America.

The total cost to fabricate, ship and assemble each stove is $20.

For more details and to learn how to help, please visit their website
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Find Me An Author Making A Living From E-books!

So there I was at a party to celebrate the season of goodwill and I get cornered by Scrooge (it’s okay –  he doesn’t have time for blogs). He is a businessman in the City and when I told him about my books, promptly asked what my marketing strategy was. Without waiting for an answer, he launched into a rather unflattering (and unfortunately rather accurate) analysis of the book industry and its bleak future.

When he stopped to inhale, I waxed lyrically (a combination of enthusiasm for my blogs and a very good glass of Merlot) about the e-book revolution and my publisher’s strategy of focusing on blogging and selling mainly e-books.

Thoroughly bored with me after about three sentences, he waved his hand and challenged me. “Get back to me when you find a fiction writer who is not already a best selling author and is making a living from selling e-books.”

Then he walked away, and I was left counting the hours before I could leave the party, get the kids to bed and fire up my laptop.

Blessed be the Goddess Google. I found someone. Thank you to Galley Cat, four writers who claim to have the “first word on the publishing industry.” Whether true or not, I am in your debt for this interview with J. A. Konath.  Since I am only going to summarize the interview and gloat, click here for the full interview.

J.A. Konrath is the author of the Jack Daniels series, his main protagonist is a Chicago cop who “chases seriel killers and other loonies.”His books are fast paced, with plenty of action, dialogue, and humor.

And yes, he has successfully built a career, which means a living wage selling his e-books, including outselling such successful competition as James Patterson.

“Unfortunately, the print world is flawed. The business model–where books can be returned, and where a 50% sell-though is considered acceptable–is archaic and wasteful. Writers get small royalties, little say in how their books are marketed and sold, and simple things like cover and title approval are unheard of unless you’re a huge bestseller.”

He also doesn’t want to put the time needed into self-publishing as what he really enjoys is actually writing. I hear you, sir!

Now down to business:

Mr. Konrath is averaging about 180 sales a day through Kindle. He also brings in royalties via the Nook, iPad and through Smashwords (a ‘meat grinder’ that prepares e-books in most major publishing formats).

With the royalty rates at 70% from Amazon and Konrath’s e-books selling for $2.99, that means he makes $2.04 per sale. This adds up to $134,000 a year. I tip my hat to you sir!

When the royalty rate for Amazon switches to 70%, I’ll be earning $2.04 on a $2.99 e-book. That’s $134,000 a year. I also plan on uploading three more e-books this month, which I expect will sell well because fans are anticipating them.

Konrath suggests that offering books for the price of a cup of coffee makes them impulse purchases and therefore so attractive. As a Kindle owner on a tight budget, I can testify that I am willing to buy a book by an author I don’t know for $3-5.

The challenge is how to make your books stand out from the masses. Konrath has tried the conventional route of reading in bookstores and conferences and no longer believes this is the right way to develop a visible writers platform and fan base. He is also focusing on his blog and website, as well as staying active on social networks.

Thank you, Mr. Konrath I am now armed and ready for the next skeptic I meet at a party!
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com


An Open Letter to Jeff Bezoz, Founder of Amazon.com & the Kindle

Dear Mr. Bezos,

Firstly, thank you for thinking up the idea of Amazon.com. I’m a big fan – I read books that I buy from Amazon, I write books that I sell on Amazon, and I love my Kindle, both to read books and to think of how we are positively impacting the environment. I have just written a number of blog entries on the e-book revolution and also the tragedy of the pulping industry.

I learned that many of the books that are pulped are textbooks because they are constantly being updated. Now I realize that this good for business, but it is bad for the trees (and therefore us). I just can’t get over the images of books being pulped and left in huge garbage tips. Perhaps it is a Jewish thing – I once witnessed a perfectly rational friend totally lose control of himself when he saw someone burning old moldy books.

His parents were Holocaust survivors who had once boasted a house full of packed bookcases. While some of the family survived, his house had been burned with all the books inside. I have since learned that this is a common in many Holocaust survivors and their offspring, as Nazis piled Jewish books in the street and burned them.

I digress. I work with university students, Mr. Bezos, and they are hurting. They are going into debt for their studies, living expenses and textbooks. Their parents can’t help them and more than a few of my students have taken on a second job to send money to their families. This is not some 3rd or 4th world country, sir, it is San Francisco. And I am sure it is all over Depression-hit America.

So here is my idea, Mr. Bezos, and it is win:win, so bear with me.

1. Every student who enrolls in a state-run university or community college (I would like you to consider all colleges and universities if you can) receives a Kindle in their freshman year, for FREE.

2. They receive generous discounts on their textbooks for three years – we can give them a code that expires then. Moreover, they get updated versions of a textbook they purchased for $1.


What do you get out of this?

1. The gratitude of a generation that saw you reach out to them when they were struggling.

2. Hundreds of thousands of loyal customers. These students will get used to purchasing through Amazon. They will get hooked on the ever-evolving Kindle (because you will ensure that it will always be cutting edge) and on the concept of e-books, of which you are the biggest seller in the world.

3. These students will, we assume emerge from school and the depression into young professionals with spending power and disposable income. They will also have a buying habit and brand loyalty.

4. Help stop the terrible waste of resources, of trees being cut down while global warming increases.

5. Help stop the senseless pulping of books because they have been printed without demand and/or have become out dated.

6. Fame and fortune for doing the right thing for the American people when they most needed it.

On behalf of our students and the planet, I thank you for considering this. Here’s to a bright future for us all.


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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

The Morning After 2 … Seriously

Now I realize I was being flippant yesterday and was likely to incur the wrath of e-book zealots. I would apologize, but I simply enjoyed writing the blog entry far too much, so I will settle for a passionate (and genuine) plea to embrace the e-book revolution.

When it comes down to it, the argument is all about e-books .v. tree books. I thought it would be a simple argument. Deforestation is one of the biggest factors in Global Warming, no? It seems that much of the debate centers around a study produced by the very credible Cleantech Group. They focus on the Kindle, though they admit that they possess little knowledge in the carbon footprint of the production and maintenance for the Kindle or the Whispernet technology that sends e-books effortlessly through the air straight to your kindle or computer.

I kind of got lost with the scientific and environmental jargon, but as I understand it, e-readers could have a major impact on improving the sustainability and environmental impact on the publishing industry, one of the world’s most polluting sectors. In 2008, the U.S. book and newspaper industries combined resulted in the harvesting of 125 million trees, not to mention the waste-water produced or other factors such as storage and transportation.

The report, authored by Emma Ritch,suggests that the carbon emitted in the life-cycle of a Kindle is more or less offset after the first year of use. She writes that “any additional years of use result in net carbon savings, equivalent to an average of 168 kg of CO2 per year (the emissions produced in the manufacture and distribution of 22.5 books).”But even before we get involved in the intricacies of carbon footprint measurement, we have to be comfortable with the huge amount of trees cut down, the energy put into printing and packaging the books and then their distribution and storage.  

If you can deal with that, consider this from an industry insider: ABOUT 40% OF ALL BOOKS PUBLISHED ARE EVENTUALLY PULPED. Tens of thousands of copies of Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom were pulped because of errors. Dan Bown’s Angels & Demons reputedly published 6 million copies for it’s first run with 2 million being sold in the first week. And the rest? Here is another article on the mass pulping of books.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t even come down to carbon footprints.

Enjoy your e-reader, knowing you are part of a movement to save the planet – the only one we know that has chocolate on it (sustainably fair trade grown chocolate,  of course!).
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

The Morning After…

Did you wake up this morning the proud, or maybe confused/intimidated owner of something small, electrical, and vaguely rectangular? Did you smile meekly while your loved ones looked on with baited breath as you pulled open the packaging and did they cheer and clap their hands welcoming you into the technological age?

And did they notice when you reached for that glass of brandy and took a gulp instead of a sip? Thousands of years in the future, archeologists will discover that man had a propensity to collect random items and leave them in their boxes. Often, they will claim to skeptical crowds, these gifts ran off of some obtuse energy source which was, no doubt very rare, since these gadgets seem to be hardly used.

Furthermore, they will note, primitive humans had a propensity to acquire the same gadget with slightly better features dispite hardly using the gadget’s predecessor.

Have another sip of brandy. Oh, I forgot it’s the morning after. Well you can always lace your cereal if you do it discreetly.

We are all entering the technological age, whether through brave adventurism, or via our loved ones desire to pull us along with them. You might as well take a deep breath and plunge in. Who knows, you might actually enjoy it.

Such things as cell phones and iPods seem to be accepted by all but a brazen few, even if the desire for the latest phone has nothing to do with actually making a call. The battle, for now, is over the e-book reader. The world (at least those of us who don’t need to worry about a roof over our heads, food at our next meal, or what’s in the water supply) is divided into three groups.

1. Embracing the technology. These people don’t just use their iPad, Kindle or Nook, they embrace it, often with an annoying missionary zest. They don’t take it out of their bag at the coffee shop or on the bus, they brandish it, like a mighty sword from days long past.

They are liable to chastise you, often in a smug, sympathetic way, as you balance your hardcover on your lap. “Oh,” they whine in true Bob Dylan style, “How many trees does a Luddite reader fell…” When dealing with these people, it can be advantageous to note that the hefty hardcover has a distinct advantage over the light, sleek screen – it is far more effective when you take a swing at aforementioned annoying individual.

2. Luddite Conviction. No way! We are already spending too much time on screens. A book is more than just words on paper. You can smell it, feel the page crackle as you move through the novel, feel the weight of the author’s perseverance as you hold his/her masterpiece in your hand… And then the classic, yet oft-doomed line: It will never catch on.

3. Dithering in the Middle. There is some middle ground. I have to admit that I love my Kindle. It is light, convenient, and I get a kick about the environmental aspects. I am also a confirmed Star Trek fan.

However, I do also miss the feel and smell of the book. I love the art of a well thought out book cover, and I also love reading while soaking in a hot bath. My bookshelves are an important part of my identity in the house I share with my family.

Some Advice for The Morning After:

Firstly: Don’t Panic! Take a deep breath and slowly unwrap the gadget and take it out of its box.

Then: Go on your computer and find either the website for the company or go to You Tube. There are some really good, simple, step-by-step videos for people like us. Remember how hard it was to drive a car when we were learning?

Finally: Have another brandy. It is the holiday season after all. And take note: if you are reading this blog, then you have already embraced the blogosphere, the cutting edge of the Internet. You are already firmly in the 21st century, dude. YOU CAN DO THIS!

Oh, and if you did receive a Kindle, iPad, or whatever, this might be a good first book to read on your gadget (couldn’t resist!).

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

The Elves of Berkeley

I never believed in elves until I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son over the summer. Now they seem to be cropping up all over the place. Both my sons are desperate to get me hooked on a strategic game called Magic: The Gathering. I do love the art work and none more so than the elves.

What on earth has this got to do with a political left coast blog?

Two weeks ago, I tried to persuade my 7-year-old that elves are real (heck, he has no problem with the tooth fairy, though I don’t appreciate the winged one’s line of credit). My son remained skeptical but then we received a printed note from the Rosa Parks (the name of his school) Bike Elves.

It seems that these elves are very committed to encouraging young people to bike to school (and elsewhere). They (magically?) appear at the school and decorate the bikes at the bike rack with colorful ribbons. Now they are offering other incentives to young cyclists such as an ice cream social after school one night and to receive raffle tickets with cool prizes for riding to school.

I don’t know who these elves are, but one of them, Stephanie is willing to help children and parents map a safe route to school (I wonder if elves rely on google maps or prefer a GPS?).

In most fantasy novels, the elves have a great respect for the earth. In Berkeley, they are taking practical steps to help our youngsters embrace a healthy and socially responsible lifestyle.

Gotta love those elves!

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

 

Do They Know Its Xmas Time Out There?

I will never forget Band Aid, an initiative of British and Irish (and later US) music artists who came together to form the ultimate supergroup in 1984. Best of all, it was founded on the energy of bad boy Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Boomtown Rats, to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia by releasing the record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” for the Christmas market that year.

The single surpassed the hopes of the producers to become the Christmas number one on that release. Two subsequent re-recordings of the song to raise further money for charity also topped the charts.

Here are all the artists wishing you a Happy New Year – back at you people. It was an amazing moment when people of privilege and fame made a stand. The struggle still goes on. We need your energy still.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

Transformational What?

A new member at our writer’s group asked me what genre I write.  I replied: “Transformational fiction.”

“What’s that?”

I was asking for it, since I have adopted a phrase I heard from the presenter of a workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.

“I write about change – people who want to help change the world and in doing so experience a change in themselves.”

What followed was a meaningful conversation about my books. In A Gardener’s Tale, the protagonist helps a young outcast change to a central member of the community. In The Accidental Activist, my main character is not one of the activists sued by the oil company, but a self absorbed computer programmer who takes up the struggle against the multinational in order to get laid (well kind of), but discovers that he can harness his talents to help improve the world.

I have written three other manuscripts and, in each, the protagonist goes through a deep transformation. As I wrote my novels, I never realized that this was a common theme until The Accidental Activist was being critiqued.

The discussion at our writer’s group progressed into which social causes we each work for, and what organizations we are involved with. When we finished, I felt that he wanted to buy my book because of his newly formed connection with me. Best of all, I never felt as though I was trying to sell him anything. I was being me and, passionate as I am about social injustices, I was being genuine.

Brian Judd, a book marketing specialist, recalled in a recent CreateSpace webinar  a man who had written a children’s book about bananas. He would dress up as a banana, which naturally became a talking point.

I have tried to make my website fit that transformational flavor: the Richard Wright quote, the request to purchase my book at an independent bookstore and showcasing non profits and causes that I support.

This urge to advance a persona behind the book and author feels right. It wouldn’t work if it wasn’t genuine, but since I have been a political activist and community organizer (no I’m not announcing my candidacy for President) for most of my life, it fits.

And so I will go out into the world and introduce myself: Alon Shalev. I write transformational fiction. And maybe one day, the person I am being introduced to won’t respond: “Transformational fiction – what’s that?”

Maybe one day they will even say: “Alon Shalev? Yeah I read your novels.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

A Woman Changing the World

Roshaneh Zafar is helping to fight extremism and create a sustainable model that will discourage recruitment to terrorist organizations by giving people hope that they can live a prosperous and stable way of life.

This American-educated banker is focusing her efforts on micro-financing. She has found a way to empower some of Pakistan’s poorest women by giving them the tools and educational opportunities to create businesses and income for themselves and their families.

“Charity is limited, but capitalism isn’t,” Roshaneh told Nicholas D. Kristof in an interview for the New York Times. “If you want to change the world, you need market-based solutions.”

Micro-financing, as I discussed in a post on Kiva.org/, lends a small amount of money to impoverished people that will enable them to set up a business.

Ms. Zafar grew up in Lahore and took the opportunity to study business at the Wharton School and economics at Yale. She worked for a while at the World Bank before returning to Pakistan in 1996 to start the Kashf Foundation.

Below is an interview with Ms. Zafar. Make yourself a cup of coffee, then sit down and spend 7 minutes with this inspiring woman.

Despite many setbacks, Kashf can now boast 152 branches throughout Pakistan and has loaned over  $200 million to more than 300,000 families. Ever thinking ahead, Ms. Zafar is now studying how to leverage this model to encourage the poor to build up savings and accrue assets.

Ms. Zafar is not only helping people start businesses, create jobs and support education that will enable people to break out of the vicious spiral of poverty, but will offer an option to living that is neither violent, nor exploitative.

She deserves a Nobel Prize, in economics and in peace. Micro-financing is a tool to ending the very conditions that create terrorism and extremism. Every Western and stable country has an interest in incorporating her model into their foreign policy.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

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