Why we need ironic type

July 23rd, 2014 [link]

From USA Today:

Strawberry fields may be forever, but a pine tree planted in memory of George Harrison will have to be replanted soon.

The original was killed by beetles.

The tree, planted as a sapling in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park in 2004 had grown to 10 feet in height.

The late Beatle, who died in 2001, was an avid gardener and lived his final years in Los Angeles.

A plaque at the base of what was called the “George Harrison Tree” reads, “In memory of a great humanitarian who touched the world as an artist, a musician and a gardener.” The plaque also contains a quote from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi: “For the forest to be green, each tree must be green.”

Perhaps once the new tree is in place, the beetles will let it be.

Financial sanctions on Russia: big or nothing?

July 22nd, 2014 [link]

What the downing of the Malaysian plane reveals yet again is how shallow Cameron is as a political leader. He only does posturing: witness his cant that the French should not deliver the warships they are contracted to build for the Russians. Imagine if the contract were with a British company, for example BAE Systems.

At least the other EU leaders don’t go in for much bluster and posturing. It’s not the Merkel style. They will almost certainly shrink from doing anything that might cause Putin to think again, though: too dependent on Russian energy supplies, not to mention exports to Vlad’s little empire. But if they need some ideas about what would really hurt, then this blog post by Paul Mason should help.

The USA’s sanctions prevent four major Russian companies – Gazprombank, VEB bank, Rosneft and Novatek – from issuing bonds to borrow money long term (longer than 90 days). The EU does not yet even do that. But if applied to a wide list of Russian companies, combined with a ban on actually trading either the shares or the debts of those companies, a freeze on market access would quickly bring the Russian economy to its knees. Its stock market would collapse, its banking system probably suffer a Lehman style moment.

In addition, any major and comprehensive crackdown on money laundering in London – with balaclava and kevlar-clad cops raiding the homes and offices of key people – would probably achieve the same effect just by being announced. London would seize up as a conduit for the tax-dodging billions of the Russian oligarchs.

And this encapsulates the problem. When a major state transgresses international law again and again, the only deterrents or remedies are major, unilateral actions by states that host global markets. The only thing you can do that is not for show is actually something quite massive.

Good stuff!

The great unread

July 22nd, 2014 [link]

The_great_unread

Lovely reflective piece by David Carr in the New York Times on our changing media ecosystem. Sample:

“For the past six months, my magazines, once a beloved and essential part of my media diet, have been piling up, patiently waiting for some mindshare, only to be replaced by another pile that will go unread. I used to think that people who could not keep up with The New Yorker were shallow individuals with suspect priorities. Now I think of them as just another desperate fellow-traveller, bobbing in a sea of information none of us will see to the bottom of. We remain adrift.”

Quite so.

In my defence, I should add that I often read the New Yorker and the Economist on an iPad.

Cloudscape with vineyards

July 21st, 2014 [link]

Cloudscape_with_vineyards

On the road to Lorgues this afternoon.

After the storm

July 21st, 2014 [link]

after_the_storm

We’re in Provence, where there have been some dramatic thunderstorms, followed by this lovely peaceful evening.

On not mentioning the war

July 21st, 2014 [link]

The only really unpleasant aspect of the German team’s demolition of their Brazilian opponents in the world cup was the inane commentary of the British TV commentators and pundits. They were as staggered by the comprehensiveness of the Germans’ superiority as were the wretched Brazilian spectators, but lacked the verbal sophistication to articulate a single interesting or original thought. Instead what came flooding out was the incessant burbling of tired cliches. The Germans were “clinical”, “ruthless”, “relentless”, “efficient”, etc. etc.

What these hapless pundits were doing, of course, was expressing the subliminal prejudices of many of their fellow-countrymen (I was going to write ‘fellow-citizens’ until I remembered that Britain doesn’t technically have any citizens; it only has subjects — one of the USPs of living under a monarchy) about Germany. It’s as if Brits are living in a time-warp from which most of the rest of the world has long escaped. You’d never gather from reading the British tabloid media that, in almost every aspect of modern life that matters, Germany has long ago met the criteria for a modern, liberal, democratic, prosperous and sustainable society, whereas Britain remains chronically addicted to imperial afterglow, public and private debt, an overweening financial services industry, housing bubbles, corrupt campaign funding, short-termism and circuses like those provided by Premiership football.

Roger Cohen had a nice piece in the New York Times the other day which makes this point rather well. The world-beating German football team, for example, is the product of long-term planning, of nurturing homegrown talent. And this is typical of the country. Germany, Cohen writes,

does not believe in quick fixes. It is worth repeating because it is an idea that sets the country apart in an age where a quick killing, tomorrow’s share price, instant gratification and short-termism are the norm. Germans on the whole think what the rest of the world builds is flimsy. Anyone who has felt the weight of a German window, or the satisfying hermetic clunk of one closing, knows they have a point. The German time frame is longer.

Why Germany differs in this may be debated. Having plumbed the depths of destruction and evil, having understood the depravity into which a “civilized” country may descend, Germany had to rebuild from the “Stunde Null,” or “Zero Hour,” of 1945. It had to hoist itself up step by step; and it had to build into its reconstituted self the guarantees that ensured no relapse was possible. This took planning. It took persistence. It involved prudence. Even before all this the first German unity of 1871 came only after centuries of strife at the European crossroads. Geborgenheit is an untranslatable German word but no less important for that. It means roughly warmth, home, trust and security, everything that is so precious in part because it may go up in smoke.

Perhaps German success is the result of the immensity of past German failure. I think that has something to do with it, even a lot. Whatever its roots, German success is important and instructive.

It is. Much of what I find admirable in German society is the product of what the BBC commentators found awe-inspiringly weird about the German performance: careful preparation, long-term thinking, persistence, a pride in doing things well. I’m a photographer and I’ve always used Leica cameras, for example. I also use terrific cameras made by Nikon in Japan, but what’s striking about the German cameras is the extent to which those who make them are involved with the products they create. This video for example showing how the Leica M9 is assembled makes the point, as does this video of how the Rohloff Speedhub is made.

Of course one can find examples of wonderful products made in many other countries (think of Rolls-Royce aero engines or Maclaren racing cars in the UK, or Nikon and Canon cameras and lenses in Japan) but these are nowadays, exceptions that tend to prove a rule, whereas in Germany this high-tech engineering culture seems more pervasive.

There is also a radical difference in the managerial culture of German enterprises. Cohen writes:

If you talk to business leaders of the German Mittelstand, the small and medium-sized companies at the heart of the country’s economy, you are transported to another world. You sit in stark boardrooms, so devoid of indulgence they resemble classrooms, with unassuming people leading billion-dollar companies, and they speak of loyalty, 10-year plans, prudence and quality. If one word induces a look of horror, it is debt. The notion of making money with money, of financial engineering rather than engineering itself, is alien.

The contrast with the Anglo-American mindset into which the UK seems increasingly locked is stark. I know which I prefer.

Quote of the Day

July 20th, 2014 [link]

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong”.

Bertrand Russell

I think he also wrote somewhere that the slogan “My country, right or wrong” is as absurd as “My mother, drunk or sober”.

Books like running water

July 20th, 2014 [link]

This morning’s Observer column

Once upon a time, 12 years ago to be precise, David Bowie said something very perceptive. “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

I thought of Bowie and his perceptiveness last week, when – in a rare piece of corporate carelessness – Amazon inadvertently provided a fleeting glimpse of what it has in store for the publishing industry. A new page appeared on its website only to be very quickly withdrawn, but not before it had been cached by Google and spotted by a hacker website.

What was on this elusive page? Why, nothing more or less than an introduction to a new service called “Kindle Unlimited”. Subscribers will be invited to “enjoy unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month”. One commentator described it as “Netflix for books”. David Bowie would doubtless have said that it’s the turn of books to become like running water or electricity.

Read on

Amazon has now confirmed the launch of the service.

Reclaiming lives from social media

July 17th, 2014 [link]

Nice opening to a piece by Nick Bilton about time-wasting on social media.

One day in the early 1920s, a young Ernest Hemingway rushed along the streets of Paris seeking shelter from a downpour. He soon came upon a warm cafe on the Place St.-Michel and ducked inside.

After hanging his rain jacket, Hemingway ordered a café au lait, pulled out a notepad and pencil from his pocket and began writing. Before long he had fallen into a trancelike state, oblivious to his surroundings as he penned a story that would later become the first chapter of his memoir, “A Moveable Feast.”

If Hemingway were alive in 2014, he might not have finished what he started writing that day. Realistically, he probably wouldn’t have even put a pen to paper.

Instead, he might have ducked into the cafe, pulled out his smartphone and proceeded to waste an entire afternoon on social media. Perhaps he would update his Facebook to discuss the rogue weather, snap a picture of his café au lait to post on Instagram and then lose the rest of the afternoon to Twitter…

Bilton is now trying to reform. His first step is to read a book first thing into the morning before he switches on his computer. Well, it’s start.

Disupting ‘disruption’

July 14th, 2014 [link]

Yesterday’s Observer column.

The Innovator’s Dilemma and the Big Idea that it spawned – disruptive innovation – has been kind to its author. Professor Christensen is widely revered as a guru in the tech world. The idea of disruptive innovation appeals to the vanity of the start-up culture: it conjures up images of high-IQ geeks subverting the empires of men in suits, or at any rate in chinos. Christensen has extended his analysis to other, non-technological areas and industries. Education, for example, is apparently ripe for disruption. And of course companies such as Uber and Airbnb are supposedly bringing innovative disruption to the taxi and hotel industries respectively. Everybody and his dog wants to be in the disruption business.

And then, a few weeks ago, a Harvard historian had the temerity to ask if Emperor Christensen had any clothes. Writing in the New Yorker, Jill Lepore gave The Innovator’s Dilemma the kind of unsympathetic third degree to which historians regularly subject the books of their professional peers. Her conclusion was unflattering, to say the least…

Read on