Those were the days

If people ask me to recommend a good book about journalism (well, British journalism anyway), I always point them at Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. Of the two, I prefer Scoop, and I was reminded of it by Roy Greenslade’s Guardian piece occasioned by the provisional death certificate recently issued for Lord Lucan. Greenslade reminds us of Garth Gibbs, the archetypal Fleet Street hack who diligently pursued the ‘missing’ Earl for many years:

Gibbs, who died in 2011, was renowned for his tenacious belief that he was only ever one step behind the missing peer. Not that he minded, however, because he spent a great deal of his employer’s money travelling the world while failing to get his man.

Reflecting on the matter after 30 years of fruitless journalistic endeavour, he explained that he had adopted as his motto an observation made by the canny Sunday Express editor John Junor: “Laddie, you don’t ever want to shoot the fox. Once the fox is dead there is nothing left to chase.”

Gibbs wrote: “With that in mind I regard not finding Lord Lucan as my most spectacular success in journalism. Of course, many of my colleagues have also been fairly successful in not finding Lord Lucan. But I have successfully not found him in more exotic spots than anybody else.”

Indeed, he had. He failed to locate him after three weeks in Cape Town, which was handy because Gibbs, a South African, was able to visit friends and relatives. Nor did he find him in Macau or Hong Kong or the Bahamas.

Colleagues who liked to toast Gibbs’s heroic failures were particularly surprised when he announced that he was off to check on a Lucan sighting in Wales. They couldn’t see the point: no sunshine and no expenses.

And thus was born one of Fleet Street’s enduring myths: the plotting by reporters and photographers of sightings of Lucan in remote hotspots across the globe that ensured first class travel to spend sun-kissed days in five-star hotels.

Sigh. Those were the days.

While I’m on the subject, the latest theory about Lucan’s fate is that he shot himself at John Aspinall’s zoo, after which his body was fed to a tiger. The really shocking thing about that is that nobody saw fit to call the RSPCA.

Marvin Minsky RIP

Nice informative obituary by Martin Campbell-Kelly which includes stuff I hadn’t known. This,for example:

Minsky was an exceptional pianist, and in 1981 wrote a remarkable paper, Music, Mind and Meaning, that explored the cognitive processes in musical appreciation. In 1985 he became a founding member of the MIT Media Lab, an interdisciplinary research laboratory devoted to projects at the convergence of technology, multimedia, sciences, art and design.

His last book, The Emotion Machine (2006), which was written for the lay reader as much as the specialist, sought to understand and explain how “thinking” works, and to explain such phenomena as consciousness and common sense. He was the recipient of many academic awards and scientific honours, including, in 1969, the AM Turing award of the Association for Computing Machinery.

History’s contradictions

Lovely Observer piece by Will Hutton:

Sometimes dealing with the past is easy. A few months ago, the college where I am principal (Hertford, Oxford) handed back a precious 16th-century atlas to its rightful owners – the Humboldt University library in Berlin. A British soldier had been offered it in exchange for a packet of cigarettes in the devastated streets of Berlin in May 1945. His father was an Oxford professor and for most of the last 70 years the Ortelius atlas had been first buried in his room and then locked in the college safe.

The 70th anniversary of the end of the war seemed as good a moment as any to return it. But what struck everyone at the small ceremony was how affected the German delegation, including representatives from the embassy and Humboldt University, were by what we were doing. It was a symbol of Germany’s relationship with Britain within a peaceful EU, an act of friendship all the more valuable because it had been freely offered and a recognition that history had moved on.

But more often than not history’s legacies are more unforgiving – a minefield in which yesterday’s and today’s realities seem irreconcilable…

Academic bitchiness

Isaiah Berlin was a past-master of the genre. Here he is writing1 to Marion and Felix Frankfurter in December 1934 about Richard Crossman, who was then a Fellow of New College, Oxford (where Berlin had been briefly a Fellow), and whom I think Berlin detested.

“Crossman is trying to sell his soul again & finding no buyers even among those who think he had one.”

I worked for Crossman briefly, when he was Editor of the New Statesman. He was an interesting man, but not a nice one.

  1. from Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, edited by Henry Hardy, Chatto & Windus, 2004. 

Tyrannised by email? Here’s how to fight back

Lovely advice from Hannah Jane Parkinson

Here’s what I suggest. Taking a cue from my boss, I’m going to be turning on my out-of-office reply when I actually leave the office in the evening. On time. For homeworkers, or flexiworkers, that means when your shift is over. Because an automated out-of-office email that reads:

“Hi. Thanks for your email. I’ve finished work for the day and I have left the office. I’m now bathing my son and about to watch that new drama – the one with Ben Whishaw – and have a couple of glasses of pinot, but if anyone asks I’ll say it’s one. Might even order a takeaway. I’ll be able to answer your email in the morning, when I’m being paid to, at around 9am. Have a lovely evening too.”

Martian takeaways

We went to see The Martian on Saturday. Interesting and enjoyable, but not as good as Apollo 13. We saw it in 2D, but a friend who saw it in 3D described it as “unmissable”. In structure, it’s a bit formulaic — if you’ve ever read one of those ‘how to write a screenplay that sells’ books you’ll be able to predict how it evolves. But the big difference with Apollo 13 is that The Martian is pure fiction, whereas the earlier film told a version of something that actually happened, and so was significantly more gripping.

Still, the takeaways from The Martian are useful. They include:

  • Never underestimate the significance of potatoes
  • The importance of ‘maker’ and DIY skills — the very skills that are atrophying because of our addiction to black-box technologies with “no user-modifiable parts”.
  • The usefulness of engineers and geeks, especially those who are good with mathematics.

How to find out how long your runway is

The one big thing I’ve learned from being involved in tech start-ups is that the first person you should hire is a financial controller. You don’t have to have him or her as a full-time employee — usually a day a week is enough at the beginning. But what you need is someone who understands money, because most techies don’t understand it. The best financial controller we ever had maintained a constantly-updated spreadsheet which could tell us — to the day — when we would become insolvent if things continued on their present course.

In principle, insolvency is a simple idea: it’s when your liabilities exceed your assets. But what most engineers and company founders forget is that — if you’re behaving ethically — your liabilities include the cost of shutting down the company, ensuring that laid-off staff get whatever redundancy pay that’s due to them, and that your customers are not left in the lurch. In the UK context, that probably means you need at least £50k over and above the cash you’re counting on to give you the runway provided by your investors.

In one of the companies I was involved in, it took us much longer to get sales revenues than we expected — not because people didn’t like our product (they did), but because when you’re a new company sales take much longer to close, and therefore it takes much longer to get the resulting revenues flowing in. And if you’re doing hardware as well as software (and we were) then you have to remember that in order to make the hardware you have to put money up front — often three to six months ahead of delivery.

Which is why some fledgling companies are destroyed by a sudden big order. The large revenues that will in due course arise from those sales arrive long after you’ve had to put up the cash in to make the kit. And in the interval you can become insolvent — and then it becomes illegal to continue to trade unless you have been able to find ways of increasing your assets, either from investors, a bank overdraft or some other wheeze. So little companies sometimes go under because they’ve suffered what my old friend Roger Needham used to call a “success disaster”.

So it’s nice to discover that Trevor Blackwell has created an elegant interactive calculator which will tell you exactly how much runway you’ve got left. All start-up founders should consult it regularly.