Just say ‘No’? I think not.

Hmmm… I found this a bit worrying:

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours — productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.’ ”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry — too little time left.”

Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall.”

Why is this troubling? Two reasons. One is that I get asked to do a lot of things — give lectures, attend other people’s events, read and comment on drafts, sit on committees and advisory boards, etc. And I often say ‘yes’, and then half-regret it because I’m conscious that life is a zero-sum game: the more time I give to other people’s stuff, the less I have to do the things I want to do (like finishing the book I’m currently incubating).

On the other hand… I gain a lot from participating in things. Innovation and creativity are, to a greater or lesser extent, social processes. I get a lot us useful ideas — ideas that I wouldn’t have generated myself — from interacting with others. If I took the Saul Bellow line I would probably wind up leading a pretty sterile existence.

But at least then people wouldn’t ask me to do things!

Calling the Chinese bluff

Lovely column by Joe Nocera about Jim Chanos, the guy who spotted the unsustainability of the Chinese real-estate bubble before most people — and acted on his insight.

Perhaps you remember Jim Chanos. The founder of Kynikos Associates, a $3 billion hedge fund that specializes in short-selling, Chanos was the first person to figure out, some 15 years ago, that Enron was a house of cards.

He shorted Enron stock — meaning that he would profit if the stock fell, rather than rose — and shared his suspicions with others, including my friend Bethany McLean, who wrote a story for Fortune that marked the beginning of the end for Enron. That call not only made Chanos a small fortune; it also made him famous.

Chanos and his crew at Kynikos don’t make big “macro” bets on economies; their style is more “micro”: looking at the fundamentals of individual companies or sectors. And so it was with China. “I’ll never forget the day in 2009 when my real estate guy was giving me a presentation and he said that China had 5.6 billion square meters of real estate under development, half residential and half commercial,” Chanos told me the other day.

“I said, ‘You must mean 5.6 billion square feet.’ ”

The man replied that he hadn’t misspoken; it really was 5.6 billion square meters, which amounted to over 60 billion square feet.

For Chanos, that is when the light bulb went on. The fast-growing Chinese economy was being sustained not just by its export prowess, but by a property bubble propelled by mountains of debt, and encouraged by the government as part of an infrastructure spending strategy designed to keep the economy humming. (According to the McKinsey Global Institute, China’s debt load today is an unfathomable $28 trillion.)

The 2015 Bad Taste Award

There are reports (the reliability of which is currently unknown) that two individuals whose identities have been disclosed in the Ashley Madison hack have committed suicide.

But in this crisis, ingenious entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity. For example, this:

At least one company is using the whole unfortunate situation as a PR opportunity. Travel group CheapAir.com is offering $50 vouchers for anyone who sends the company a message from an email address that was disclosed on the leaked user list. “If your relationship is in ruins and you’re thinking about heading out of town, we have a solution for you,” the company wrote. “You may have made some mistakes, but a vacation may be just what you both need right now.”

This wins the Memex 1.1 Bad Taste Award for 2015. As the Obama election team used to say, never waste a good crisis.

Unnatural beauty

Cockington_Court_edited

The genius of Capability Brown and the other great English landscape artists was to make the artificial seem utterly and timelessly natural — as here at Cockington Court in Devon. Their only modern counterparts are golf architects: think of the way Augusta National looks now, compared to what the terrain was like when Bobby Jones and Alister MacKenzie first got to grips with it.

The lessons of (computer) error

This morning’s Observer column:

A few years ago, I received a speeding ticket from the Metropolitan police claiming that a speed-camera in London had photographed my car – citing the correct registration number of the vehicle – doing 43mph in a 30mph zone. Most people would, I guess, be distressed by receiving such a communication. Your columnist, however, was perversely delighted – because it offered him the opportunity of not only irritating the cops but also of making an important point about the dangers of being overly dependent on technology.

The reason for my glee was that the car had definitely not been at the location specified on the speeding ticket at the time and I could prove that using the same technology that the Met had used in order to frame me. My family and I had been out of the UK in the week in question and the car was parked at Stansted airport, where its arrival and departure at the mid-stay car park were logged by the automated numberplate recognition technology that the airport authorities had recently installed.

Accordingly, I wrote to the commissioner of the Metropolitan police enclosing a copy of the speeding ticket and saying that I would be very interested to see what evidence he had in support of it, adding that I intended to contest it on the grounds that I could prove my car had been nowhere near the location at the time. But my hopes for a bloody good row were dashed within a fortnight: a computer-generated notice arrived, informing me that the speeding ticket had been cancelled. No explanation; no apology; nothing…

Read on.

Alphabetical order

Google’s decision to morph into Alphabet — i.e. a holding company which has one enormously profitable cash-cow (Google) plus a raft of unprofitable and speculative ventures, has prompted a search for models and analogies. In a thoughtful piece, Neil Irwin sees three possible models:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • General Electric
  • AT&T in its monopolistic heyday

Of the three, Irwin sees AT&T as the most likely model, basically because of Bell Labs, which AT&T owned until it was broken up for anti-trust reasons. The Labs were only viable because AT&T had monopoly profits from its phone business, which enabled the company to fund all kinds of fabulous long-term research, only some of which actually benefited AT&T. So long as Google search remains a money-pump, that model will work for Alphabet. If the Search well runs dry, though, one wonders what will happen.

French regulator vs. First Amendment

This morning’s Observer column:

Although Google is an American company, it had no option but to comply with the ECJ ruling because it trades with – and has assets in – all the countries in the European Union. But because it is based in the US, it also has to obey the laws of that particular land. And in the US, the first amendment to the constitution means that people take a very dim view of any interference with free speech. Sanitising Google search results to comply with the rulings of a foreign court would certainly be perceived as such an interference. So while RTBF links are removed from, say, google.fr, they remain visible on search results from Google.com, which is easily accessible from any European country.

It turns out that some of Europe’s data protection regulators are not amused by this…

Read on

The (political) power of search engines

This is interesting:

We present evidence from five experiments in two countries suggesting the power and robustness of the search engine manipulation effect (SEME). Specifically, we show that (i) biased search rankings can shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20% or more, (ii) the shift can be much higher in some demographic groups, and (iii) such rankings can be masked so that people show no awareness of the manipulation. Knowing the proportion of undecided voters in a population who have Internet access, along with the proportion of those voters who can be influenced using SEME, allows one to calculate the win margin below which SEME might be able to determine an election outcome.

Writing as someone who is working on a piece about the new kinds of power wielded by Internet companies, this seems pretty significant.

The anti-innovation system

The patent system has become dysfunctional. Even The Economist thinks so. This from the current edition:

Patents are supposed to spread knowledge, by obliging holders to lay out their innovation for all to see; they often fail, because patent-lawyers are masters of obfuscation. Instead, the system has created a parasitic ecology of trolls and defensive patent-holders, who aim to block innovation, or at least to stand in its way unless they can grab a share of the spoils. An early study found that newcomers to the semiconductor business had to buy licences from incumbents for as much as $200m. Patents should spur bursts of innovation; instead, they are used to lock in incumbents’ advantages.

Yep.