Thursday, April 30, 2009

The best health warning

I hope Simon Jenkins is right about swine flu being "a panic stoked in order to posture and spend". I'm not in a position to decide. I can only take comfort in the fact that whenever the mass media decide to make a big deal of something happening in an area with which I'm familiar they first over-simplify the case, then over-state it and quickly get bored with it.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Cleverness is overrated

This Australian Broadcasting Corporation programme traces the roots of the economic crash to the rise of MBA culture, which valued decision making over in-depth knowledge of how a business works. Somebody points out that George W. Bush went to Harvard Business School where the prized skill is to read a 20-page report and then make a decision. That's how the Iraq War was started.

Many of us have been in companies where we've seen firms of consultants introduced at eye-watering expense to point out how savings could be made and business processes streamlined. In most cases you could predict what they were going to say long before they said it. Some of what they say is true but impractical. Some of what they say is practical but not in their hands. Some of what they say is the kind of nonsense that plays in a presentation and won't bear a minute's scrutiny in the outside world.

The main point of outside consultants is to come into an organisation, say the unsayable and then retreat to a safe distance. This catalytic function is often undervalued and can even work if the business remains in the hands of people who have a long-term understanding of which levers operate which functions. That's what they call "domain knowledge".

Which brings me to government. The last twenty years have seen the emergence of a governing class who have little or no experience of the key management skill, which is organising people to make something happen. The previous generation gained this skill either in industry or the armed forces. People like Gordon Brown, David Miliband, Harriet Harman, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and David Cameron are all former academics, journalists or PRs. William Hague went straight from Oxford to a short career in management consulting via an MBA. Barack Obama has ascended to the highest office in the world without having had even one day's experience in actual government. These people's key tendency is to legislate and then wait for the world to behave. They are all frighteningly clever people - which rather assumes that clever people make the best governing class. They don't always.

I have had enough experience in and around the upper reaches of companies to know that their kind of Oxbridge cleverness is, except in the smallest of doses, surplus to requirement. What's needed is shrewdness, judgement, an ability to concentrate and, most important of all, a mastery of the possible. If you follow the thesis of this programme we arrived in the present pickle thanks to a load of clever people in business who thought they could change the world by moving a few columns of figures. There's some truth in that. What's even more worrying is that the clever people in government purporting to be able to get us out of it by a little quantitative easing here and the postponement of a few spending projects there know even less about how the real world works. I think they're all about to be found out.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Playing doctors and nurses

A traffic accident this weekend – don't ask, nothing broken – brought us into contact with the emergency services. In the space of a couple of hours up to twenty professionals were inserted, with due urgency, into our lives. All of them were polite and helpful but I couldn't help being confused by what they were or were not wearing.

No problem with the police and the ambulance services who are all uniformed and clearly wear the insignia of their rank. But when you get to A&E you're thrown into an environment whose occupants' habiliments range from uniform through half-hearted uniform to no kind of uniform at all. You're prodded and ministered to by nurses wearing different outfits, examined by a young doctor with his shirt outside his trousers, then another doctor who is presumably more senior because he's slightly older and finally injections and other elements of treatment are administered by people wearing the "scrubs" that are familiar to all lovers of "M.A.S.H.". And then there are the people you don't deal with directly. I was eyeballing a huge, overweight, unshaven, extensively tattooed man with some nervousness until he looked at the board at the end of the bed and I realised he was an orderly. Looking around you weren't entirely sure who worked there and who was just visiting. This may work in a fashionable hotel but I don't know how appropriate it is in this environment.

I'm sure that the treatment was entirely professional and correct but I can't help but think that it looked slovenly. And when things look slovenly, they can often be slovenly. When you're thrown into this kind of environment, usually in some distress, surely it has to help if you can immediately work out who the people are, what role they fulfil and, also, who's in charge. Obviously, I'm old fashioned. The first family doctor I remember checked my pulse against a pocket watch produced from his waistcoat pocket. I don't expect him to come back. Nonetheless I believe that at times of distress there's an enormous amount to be said for formality.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The defence rests

Today is the beginning of Slow Down London Week, a campaign to persuade Londoners of the value of taking the time to enjoy their surroundings. This seems like a good idea. Everyone of sound mind would presumably agree. So why then do the Today Programme feel that they can only interview one of the people behind it if they then follow him with somebody who's against it? I know this adversarial approach to covering issues is time-honoured (though it always favours the glib and snappy over the slow and considered) but does it really apply to something as gentle and harmless as this? Is there anybody in the world who thinks that slowing down to enjoy London is not a good idea? Anyone, that is, apart from a hack who's been rung up by a producer at the BBC and asked to oppose it?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

When's the future going to arrive?

Last night I chaired a session about podcasting and audio on demand for the Radio Academy at The Guardian. Panelists were Emily Bell who oversees all the digital stuff at the Guardian, Jon Gaunt, the host of the newly launched audio show at The Sun and Steve Bowbrick who curates the best speech radio on a terrific site called Speechification. The consensus seems to be that all this material will soon be accessed via your phone.

Afterwards in the bar overlooking the canal and luxury apartments - the Guardian's new HQ really is the place where the recession seems most distant - somebody from AudioBoo "interviewed" me and then with a few keystrokes on his iPhone sent the resulting conversation into the great digital yonder.

I don't pretend to understand how any of these things work or dare hazard a guess at whether this or that technology will change the world. The only thing you can be is agnostic. It was My Space, then it was Facebook, then it was Twitter, then Spotify; tomorrow it will be AudioBoo and already somebody is putting the finishing touches to something that will make them all look quaint. They wax, they wane, they go on to the back burner and sometimes they disappear altogether. As long as you're not buying the company, it doesn't matter.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Bleep-bleep, bleep-bleep, yea

One of the most amusing aspects of doing "For One Night Illegally - The History of the Bootleg" on Radio Four (on the iPlayer for the next few days if you're interested) was the inclusion of extracts from the legendary Troggs Tapes. These are famously peppered with four-letter words; therefore we didn't expect to be able to broadcast them.

The producer spent a good deal of time involved in the "compliance" issues which, post-Brandgate, seem to occupy much of a BBC producer's time. (I met a Radio Three producer the other day who was complaining about how time-consuming all this was. On Radio Three? What are they doing over there? Placing prank calls to Daniel Barenboim? Asking him if he's got the hots for Mitsuko Uchida? Talking about being out on the lash with the Berlin Phil?)

Anyway, it was finaly agreed that we could use a section of the dialogue with the obscenities bleeped out. However we were also given a strict limit on exactly how many bleeps we were allowed. It's a bit like rationing asterisks.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A licence fee for newspapers?

Very interesting piece by Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian, about the possibility of traditional news-gathering being paid for by a "licence fee" paid by web users. I don't think it will happen because the one thing government's not going to do is propose further taxation for anything like this. However what's clear is that the current situation where newspapers are giving their stuff away for free can't sustain much longer. The boss of the Mirror Group, Sly Bailey, made this clear on Friday.

Local papers are folding already. The next to go will be national titles. Even if they do what the digital zealots advise and migrate all their content to the web, they will only make a tiny fraction of what they make by selling ink on paper. They won't be able to sustain their operations on this revenue and so they will sink. This is something that's becoming more widely accepted with each passing day.

What intrigues me about Preston's piece is his observation that the further the BBC strays from its traditional role of providing news and entertainment on radio and TV and the increasing strain it is forced to take as the nation's primary news provider, the greater will be the pressure on the old understanding that underpinned the licence fee. And what are they going to do for content every day when they can't read out The Sun and The Times?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The aliens that are eating Florida

If you only read one long article this week, make it Burkhard Bilger's jaw-dropping "Swamp Things" in the current issue of the New Yorker. It's about how Florida accidentally became home to thousands of non-indigenous "exotic" creatures. Many started off as domestic pets and were let go when they got too big. Others were smuggled into the state to cater to a novelty-obsessed local market. Some were displaced many miles during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
The outcome is that since 1994 the Florida Everglades have been home to a growing population of Burmese pythons. They were a few inches long when they were bought as pets. They can now grow to twenty feet and are almost-impossible to capture. They reckon that there could be 140,000 Burmese Pythons in the Everglades. This would be disturbing enough on its own but the last section of the article is about the arrival of the Nile Monitor. This six foot lizard, which is described as "omnicarnivorous", can out-run a man and is known to hunt in packs. Thanks to the canals linking the swamp with the town they have taken up residence on the lawns of a suburban community called Cape Coral.

It's a brilliant feature. The line that stays with you is a quote from one zoologist commenting on this alien invasion: "it's time to stop studying these things and start killing them".

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

What *really* killed Maxim

A few years ago Maxim was one of the most successful magazines in the world. Now it's closing. The decline of the so-called "lad's mag" – a sniffy name invented by the posher men's titles, who know their readers are no older or wealthier but are in the business of selling luxury advertising – is not down to a sea change in society. It's down to Photoshop.

It's years since any of the pictures in any of these magazines had even the faintest erotic charge. All the girls have got the same straight hair, the same make-up and the same pouty lips, appear to have been photographed in the same un-specific context and, where the thighs have been slimmed, the spots excised and the eyes whitened, are eventually bathed in that same Venusian sheen that leaves them looking as alluring as a pair of cable-knit tights. It's as if the advent of hyper-real cartoons like Tank Girl and movies like Toy Story encouraged the editors to grope towards an archetypal amazon. This seems to fly in the face of the fact that men are pathetically grateful for whatever they can get. That applies no less in their fantasies than it does in their real lives.

When the history of the men's magazine boom of the last twenty years is written people will go looking for the images to place alongside the tennis player scratching her backside, Farrah Fawcett Majors' incandescent smile, Alberto Vargas's forgetful blondes or Adam Hersh's lesbian kiss in the gallery of male fantasy. They'll find very few candidates.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Executive Drive Time

I used to do a radio programme on GLR. We called one of the regular features Executive Drive Time. Trevor Dann came up with that. The idea was to play driving records for people returning from their places in the country. This morning I've been trying to think of the records that were staples for that slot. These are some of them. There's a Spotify playlist here if you want to hear them.
1. Bob Seger: Roll Me Away.
When music critics use that horrible cliché "wide screen", this is what they're trying to describe. A few years ago I heard Alan Bleasdale on "Desert Island Discs". He picked this record. Said he'd heard it once on the radio while driving into London. I like to think that was me.
2. Freddie King: Going Down.
Texas bluesman King made a few records for Shelter in the early 70s. They were produced by Don Nix and Leon Russell and they're the last great blues albums. Nobody made anything in that idiom that sounded half as good again. There's a very good American comedy series at the moment called "Westbound and Down", which is all about a dumb redneck ball player. This is the theme. Perfect.
3. ZZ Top: Jesus Just Left Chicago.
Always makes me think of the adjective "thixotropic". Don't know why but dear God, what a rhythm section.
4. Ray Charles: Mess Around.
Danny Baker says this is the only record that never lets you down. I'm with him. Nothing illustrates the ecumenical nature of pop music better than this. It's all about a catfish barbecue and yet it was written by the son of the Turkish Ambassador to the United States. This record's out of the house and hot wiring the car while you're still looking for your keys.
5. Richard Thompson: Keep Your Distance.
The great thing about Richard Thompson is that he can sing the worthiest sentiments over the most impious noises. He knows the whereabouts of a chord that absolutely nobody else can strike.
6. Montrose: Rock Candy.
Ted Templeman produced the first Montrose album in the early 70s. He then made the same album with Van Halen who sold millions. All the records made since which purport to be hard rock are essentially pale copies of the first Montrose album. Every time we put this on in the HMV Shop we would sell ten copies.
7. Jan & Dean: Surf City.
The first record I ever danced to. I think the dance was called the Twitch. It was in somebody's living room in the West Riding of Yorkshire. We didn't even know what surfing was but we knew there was two swinging honeys to every guy and all you had to do was just wink your eye.
8. Warren Zevon: Searching For A Heart.
Men driving on their own are prone to maudlin sentimentality. I saw this used in a movie called "Grand Canyon" to underline just such a point. "They say love conquers all, you can't start it like a car, you can't stop it with a gun." Like he said in his last days, "enjoy every sandwich".
9. Bruce Springsteen: Drive All Night.
I once asked listeners to nominate records that they found erotic. The men's suggestions were terrible - a grotesque combination of lewdness and correctness. One woman rang up and suggested this. It's about a man being prepared to drive all night just to buy her some shoes. Not dinner. Not an iPod. Not a new summer outfit. Shoes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mummy will not kiss it better

John Gray interviewed in today's Independent:
"Realism is a necessary condition of serious politics and serious policy-making. And realism isn't popular. Because what many people are looking for in politics – including green politics at the moment, is a meaning for their lives. If you say to people: 'We can't move to a world in which we don't have either nuclear or fossil fuels. That's impossible,' they will say, 'That's not impossible, not if we all want it.' But many countries don't want it. Russia's not going to do it. Venezuela's not going to do it. Iran's not going to do it. Their wealth and power depend upon fossil fuel. 'Well, we can do it,' they'll say.

"And when you push it, it comes down to a kind of symbolic expressive function whereby even if the effect of certain policies – like moving towards wind power – is to be forced back to coal, then it doesn't matter, because the purpose of the policy is not actually to effect a real-world change but to keep the spirits up."

Bums on seats

Following the arrest of the Pakistani nationals who entered the UK on student visas they've been talking on the radio about ways of ensuring that only bona fide applicants are accepted by our universities. Unless I was mishearing, somebody was actually suggesting that British academics should go out to Pakistan to interview potential students there. That may or may not be practical. But if they do introduce such a procedure they should prepare themselves for some pressure closer to home from people who wonder why, with the exception of an elite handful of universities and in the case of certain courses, most British students turn up to their first day at university never having been interviewed by anyone at all. When the percentage of 18-year-olds going to university was quite small most students were selected on the basis of grades and at least one interview. Now that we're heading for fifty per cent they don't think that a face-to-face meeting matters at all. Maybe that's one of the reasons a quarter of them don't complete their courses.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

She was just seven (teen)

For writers of a very particular age group - let's say anyone currently between 45 and 60 - their first professional meeting with a Beatle is a unique moment. All the writers I know who've had that privilege - and given current circs it's generally with that most reliable trouper, Paul - can remember every last second of it. By the time it makes it to the page they've done their best to conceal their palpitations behind a thin screen of professionalism. What they deliver is affectionate but slightly distanced. What they tell their husband or wife on first returning from the encounter is something else altogether. In the current issue of the New Yorker Nancy Franklin reports on her visit to a Paul McCartney rehearsal. Reading between the lines, she didn't get to meet him. What she writes indicates that it doesn't really matter. The excitement isn't, in the end, anything to do with this 67-year-old chap from London. The excitement is still inside the youngster and that youngster is still inside the adult. What it must be like to be the thin wire upon which that pulse still travels only people like Paul McCartney can know. And there aren't many people like Paul McCartney.

Nobody knows anything

I won't pretend to have read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable" but I do like his Ten Principles for a Black Swan-proof World. I've got particular sympathy for his point that "complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it". Just as the most important three words in a marriage are "you were right", the most important three words in business are the three you rarely hear - "I don't understand."

The area I work in doesn't have the potential to decimate your pension, even if it's really badly run, but nonetheless in my working life I've seen the media morph from a business whose processes were largely transparent to one that has grown increasingly opaque. For a couple of years after the widespread adoption of what was then known as Desk Top Technology I used to half-heartedly suggest that we set aside one day a year when we would put together a magazine in "the old way", just to reassure ourselves that we still knew how to do it. That seems ridiculous now. But what applies to business practices also applies to business models. For instance, I find it hard to believe that there is anyone at the top of any of our big media organisations who really understands how web advertising and marketing really works. I suspect they're glad that nobody ever asks them.

If Taleb is looking for an eleventh principle, I'd suggest a rather broader point. I use it to bore and occasionally encourage my children. It's this. "Cleverness is overrated."

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

It's only TV, Parky.

Michael Parkinson: "Jade Goody has her own place in the history of television and, while it’s significant, it’s nothing to be proud of. Her death is as sad as the death of any young person, but it’s not the passing of a martyr or a saint or, God help us, Princess Di. When we clear the media smoke screen from around her death, what we’re left with is a woman who came to represent all that’s paltry and wretched about Britain today. She was brought up on a sink estate, as a child came to know drugs and crime, was barely educated, ignorant and puerile. Then she was projected to celebrity by Big Brother and became a media chattel to be exploited till the day she died.”

Max Clifford rides to her defence: “What Michael forgets to mention is that Jade already has saved countless lives of young women through her battle with cervical cancer. And she has provided the best possible education for her boys and stressed the importance of that.”

What neither the prosecution nor the defence can bring themselves to mention is the fact that Jade Goody was just a TV star. TV stars tend not to be a noble breed. Like all TV stars her fame was, by the standards of the wider world, undeserved. She was as fortunate as the next bozo who woke up to find they were the kind of person the camera happened to like. Along with her producers she arrived at a shorthand version of her actual personality and milked it for all it was worth. Pretty much like Michael Parkinson - a man who has spent forty years in the public eye playing upon his "roots" as if they were a banjo and as far as I can recall not doing or saying much that's been surprising or remarkable - has done. I don't mean that in a bitchy way. It's that very dullness and puppyish willingness to slavishly go along with the expectations of the audience that makes for long careers in TV. You'd have thought he would have known that and kept his counsel.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Belt and braces. Then another belt.

Whether the UK version of Wired will work or not will depend more on the buoyancy of the UK print advertising market and the health of the American parent title than anything else. However, I was intrigued to see that the launch issue comes with a peel-off day-glo orange sticker describing it as "the new magazine about what's next". This suggests that after the usual nervous conversations about what the first cover should look like, what would make the appropriate cover image (looks like Manhattan but it's actually London) and the exact combination of cover lines that position the title - "ideas/technology/culture/business" - with more pointed invitations to read further inside - who could "the genius who killed the economy" possibly be? - and the designer's painstaking efforts to incorporate the announcement "UK launch issue" into the logo so completely that you don't actually notice it, somebody profit-responsible has come in there at the last minute and said "what this needs is a sticker saying what it is".

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The great English pursuit

Went for a quick drink after work last night to mark a birthday. It was in a place called Smithy's down an unpromising street near Kings Cross. Everybody's drink was served in a glass bearing the branding of the drink they ordered. Presumably the idea is to carry the messaging of advertising into the retail environment itself, the better to engender loyalty and to ensure that even the drunkest customer approaching the bar ten minutes before closing simply has to thrust the glass forward and say "more of *this*".

I've just finished H.W. Brands' biography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin spent his life commuting between the American colonies and England and never got over not just the amount the English drank but also the energetic, determined way they went about it. Brands quotes a contemporary account of an evening's entertainment in 18th century England.
"We continued," he says, " drinking like horses, as the vulgar phrase is, and singing till many of us were very drunk, and then we went to dancing and pulling of wigs, caps, and hats; and thus we continued in this frantic manner, behaving more like mad people than they that profess the name of Christians."

I can't get the image of people "drinking like horses" out of my mind.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Give us a wave, love

I've blogged in the past about the occasions I found myself being waved at in a very personal way by both Bill Clinton and H.M. The Queen. Michelle Obama turned up to visit the secondary school round the corner from the office just now. A crowd of people gathered from Chapel Market. This is not a section of the public best known for its interest in the Special Relationship. All they wanted to do was catch a glimpse. But when the motorcade of identical black vehicles drew up their windows were all blacked-out, meaning not only did people not see anything, they couldn't even tell that they were waving at the right vehicle. People moved away with a peculiarly flat feeling.
If Her Maj can make herself visible to all the citizenry, gunmen and all, I don't see why the wife of the President can't do the same. After all, as Mick Jagger says, all you've got to do is give them a glimmer.