Monday, 31 May 2010

Just Happiness Is Not Enough

There's a Vodafone ad in the cinemas now in which daughter calls father who drops his company social ("let's hear from our new Director") and takes a very expensive cab ride to some suburban high street where daughter is crying in her car. "He" has left her. She has no idea why. She "just wanted us to be happy. That's not asking too much is it?"

My reaction? It's not asking too much, it's not asking enough. Because when anyone say "I just want you to be happy" it means one of several things. At worst it means "I want you to stop upsetting me by being so restless and unhappy". At its most mediocre it means "I want us to be content". ..... What it does not mean is "I want you to be happy".

To be happy, in the immortal words of the very English philosopher Gilbert Ryle, is to be doing what you want to be doing and not wanting to be doing anything else. Happiness requires a huge chunk of self-knowledge, so that you know what you want to be doing, and a huge amount of luck, so you can do it and not have to do a day job where you can earn money. There is no guarantee that "following your bliss" will earn you any money at all. Happiness is just not a realistic option for most of us working folk.

You know that the daughter did not mean this kind of happiness because she says "just". In that context, it's a diminutive. She just wanted them to be happy, as if you could be happy somehow independently of what you did with your life. What she wanted was for him to be content being with her.

That's not enough. It might be enough for her, now, but it won't be in a few years. I'd love to be happy, but it's never going to happen: I have a day job I happen to be good at but it's not why I get out of bed. That would be fear makes me do that. Plus at my age I can't turn over and go back to sleep after I've woken up. Contentment is the anti-depressant of the emotions: you don't feel bad, but that's because you don't feel much at all.

The point is that happiness, like profit, is not something you can aim for. It's a by-product of doing something else well. You can't "just" be happy. It's way more difficult than that.

And I don't get the ad. If I use Vodafone, my relationship will break up? My daughter's relationship will break up? Vodafone is the Bad News Network? I know they want you to think it's the Network For Caring Fathers, but there are other more positive events they could have used. And if I let my staff use Vodafone, they will walk out on meetings the moment their dysfunctional but grown-up children call them for a shoulder to cry on? I bet it sounded great in the pitch, but it doesn't hold up.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Eighteen Things Your MI Analysts Would Like You To Know

Everyone can't be top of our priority list. This means you.

Ever wondered how you can do us a favour?

Here's how we set our priorities: 1. your position in the pecking order, 2. the fulsomeness of your last thank-you to our boss, 3. how quickly we can do it, 4. task / project coolness, 5. how important it is to you. Sometimes we don't care about 5.

Your inability to describe what you want is not our failure to understand you.

If it's so urgent, why did you leave it in your inbox for three days?

Don't tell us it should be easy, if it was, you would have done it yourself

Because you're in a panic, we should be as well?

Remember that when they designed the database, they had no idea you would want to know that

Setting delivery dates is not a unilateral exercise

"Challenging" is what knights on horseback do. Colleagues co-operate.

You wouldn't send us an unclear request by e-mail, go on holiday and expect the information in your inbox when you get back. Would you?

The company only provides us with hammers and pliers - that's why all your problems are treated as nails

We have better computers and software at home

If you really want our time and attention, give us some of yours

We are simple people with clever minds that burn sugar: we are not kidding when we tell you to bring chocolate

If in doubt, tell us what you want to prove, who to and why. You would be amazed at how that clarifies your thinking for you.

If it's too secret to tell us about, don't ask us to do it. Find someone you trust. Or decide to trust us.

We work much harder for people we like. Try to be one of those people.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Men Don't Feel Bad When They See This, They Just Stop Buying.

I've tried twice to compose this entry and each time stopped. This is for the simple reason that anyone reading will take one look at a photograph of a male model and think "Oh, I don't know seven dials was gay". Well, I'm not. But you won't be able to stop yourself thinking it when you page down.

And that's why no-one has ever written anything about the subject of male models. Female models they can hardly stop themselves withering on about. If it isn't about how fabulous the girl is, it's about how she's making every other woman in the country feel fat and less-than. Now, how a grown woman could suppose than she's supposed to look like the cutie above, I have no idea.

Because I don't think I'm supposed to look like these guys. If you told me I was, I'd give you the number of the Tavistock Institute and suggest you sign up for some group therapy. I have no idea if they are straight or gay, but I know what fantasy the stylist and photographer are asking them to project.

I don't know how it works for you, but an ad works for me if I can identify in a good way with the people and the message. I see Chris Cox at easyandelegantlife or Guiseppe at An Affordable Wardrobe wearing or discussing something and I pay attention. This is because they are closer to my age and general bodyshape so what works for them might work for me. I see the ad below and I'd like to be able to pay more attention but that just is never going to be my life again. One reason I pay attention is because he has a slight Orlando Bloom thing going and Orlando is the kind of guy I'd've liked to look like when I was his age.

So who are they selling to? I've always had the suspicion that all those high-end editorial pieces in Vogue and Harpers are aimed at the mistresses of rich men. Here's some more stuff for your sugar daddy to buy for you. Is someone telling me that i-D is aiming at the, ahhh, same-market-different-gender? I would at this point put in a photograph from GQ to prove that other magazines use the same sharp-faced, high-cheekboned look on their boy models, except I won't go near GQ now until they stop using those kinds of models. I'd like to wear some of those clothes, but the idea that someone would think I identified with those models is just plain off-putting.

Here's the thing. I don't feel bad because I see implausible-looking boys in fashion spreads. I just stop buying the magazine. (Unless, like i-D, it has more pictures of implausibly-pretty girls in it.) Are we sure that women don't feel the same way and do the same thing? And that all the fuss about how bad the average female feels on seeing an Abby Lee pictorial is, well, just more self-promotion for the fashion business?

Friday, 21 May 2010

The Fringe Benefit of Glamour Photos

There was a long article in the May issue of Vanity Fair about Tiger Woods' sex life. Which seems to have been pretty much semi-sham marriage, rich young athelete, lots of girls. Seems he didn't spend much money on them though. Michelle Braun, who's already caught your eye, was the madam who set him up with a lot of dates towards the end. (I know she doesn't look this good in real life, but when guys over the age of, oh, thirty-five, are thinking about sex, this is what we're thinking about.)

What's interesting is the description of her rosta of girls. Loredana Ferriolo, who finally got Tiger spending money, was a Hawaiian Tropic model. Who was being run, or represented, by Ms Braun. It seems that girls good looking enough to model for suntan lotion ads don't go home to a Cup-of-Soup and re-runs of Friends in the evening. They go out for £5,000 or more the time. It's not surprising that porn stars make money as escorts and maybe it's not that surprising that some models do as well. But here's the thought: maybe the real money is in escorting and the porn and the glamour photography (Page Three, miscellaneous men's magazines) is really just, well, advertising. Not for all of the girls, but for far more of them than you might want to believe. Call it a "fringe benefit" if you like.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

I'm Seven Dials and I'm an ACoA

I have a drinking problem. For me, one drink is too many and a hundred are too few. I have definite addictive behaviours and tastes - but this is a family show so we're not going to discuss those. Am I an alcoholic? No. I'm an ACoA with a drinking problem. My recovery was / is about gaining self-respect for the first time and a sense of my proper right to advance myself in the world, not about the restraint of a runaway ego that characterises a classic AA recovery. The ACoA "Laundry List" is a better description of me, or at least the earlier me, than any characterisation of the alcoholic in the Big Book. It was reading Beattie's Codependent No More that made me think "Yes! This is me!", not reading the Big Book. I always felt the Big Book should apply to me, but I've heard hundred of people say they felt that it did, right from the start.

I've mooted this idea before, but there's a difference between considering an idea and adopting it. When you adopt an idea you need, amongst other things and in contradiction to Walt Do-I-Contradict-Myself Whitman, to remove those current ideas you have that are inconsistent with the new one. This way change lies, otherwise the result is stagnation (no new ideas) or craziness (rampant inconsistency). You don't do this in one grand gesture but slowly. I know I'm better off for going to at least one meeting a week, but I need to re-think what it is I want to get out of it. I still have the drinking problem, and if I pick up a drink because I think it will make my life better, the next time you see me, it will be in a coffin.

I have a problem with alcohol, but alcohol is not my problem. (AA's love that sort of phrasing - it's probably some rhetorical device with one of those are-you-kidding dog-Latin names.) My problem was / is the ideas about myself and the world and other people I picked up at an early age. My problem was / is finding an accommodation between what I want from people and what they are prepared to give in return for what I can afford in time, money and attention. My problem is that I have an addict's body chemistry (those people who say "I have an addictive personality" don't understand Fact One about addiction, which is that addiction is physical). It gets triggered by booze, chocolate and sex amongst other things.

It's not enough for me to stay clean and sober. Even The Steps aren't quite enough - though both sobriety and Steps are essential. The final part is keeping the dysfunctional, defeatist thoughts at bay - in a realistic manner. None of that New Age affirmations crap for me thank you.

And I'm 56 yesterday. Shit. I am going to be SO poor when I can't earn any more.

Monday, 17 May 2010

(Roughly) How The Great Art Bubble Worked

I bought a DVD of Ben Lewes' 2009 documentary on the Great Art Bubble while visiting the Tate Modern last Tuesday. I watched it a couple of times and let the whole thing simmer in my unconscious for a while. Lewis never did work out what was going on, or if he did, his lawyers told him not to explain it. But the following Sunday I got it. It's almost as complicated as explaining a credit default swap, but that's why everyone got away with it for so long. It's not something you'd think up for yourself unless you worked in the markets (I don't, but I didn't think it up, I just figured it out afterwards).

Here are the ingredients: 1) a low cost of borrowing, 2) a bank or banks willing to lend a reasonable amount of the value of an artwork to its owner, 3) a thriving but very secretive private sales operation, 4) a thriving and very public auction market, 5) an acceptance by all concerned that the auction market sets the price of an artwork (however temporarily), 6) a small enough number of insiders who “all know each other”, 7) a sufficient supply of outsiders, marks and newcomers, 8) a supply of recognisable but essentially commodity-like artworks.

Now suppose you own four of Andy Warhol's Jackie screen prints. You bought them for, say $50,000 each. You put one up for auction with Sotheby's and ask me to bid for it: I can go as high as $500,000. You will be bidding by phone, to create the appearance of genuine activity and to make sure the price gets up to target. The auction comes, I bid and “buy” your Jackie for $500,000. You pay Sotheby's the seller's premium and cover me for the buyer's premium. Since you're an insider, you get a discount on both. You hand me $500,000 of your money so I can pay Sotheby's so they can pay you $500,000 of your money. Net zero. You have now established (item 5) a new record price for a Warhol Jackie. Not bad huh? Especially since you get your Jackie back in a “private sale” which is as fake as the auction sale but keeps the paperwork straight. (Because I paid with your money – remember?)

Here are some ways you can benefit from this little maneouvre. You can borrow some money from the bank (item 2) against the new value of your four Jackies. Since the other three of your Jackies look just like the fourth (item 8 and the important one), it's easy for the bank to lend me you, say, 50% on the new value of your Jackies (item 2). So you have $1m, on which you are paying perhaps 4% (item 1).

Or you could sell one of your Jackies privately (item 3). Believing the auction price (item 5), the buyer is expecting to pay $500,000, but most likely will be thrilled to get it, after a little fake negotiation, for, say $200,000. You have certainly sold it for more than you could have done before the auction. Anyway, the buyer doesn't care, because they aren't using their money, they can borrow it from the bank (item 2).

Even if I had to pay Sotheby's the full auction price, I can negotiate delayed payment terms. Like maybe a year. Which gives me plenty of time to sell a couple of my Jackies at the new, improved price. I'll get the money back and make much more profit than I would have done selling at the pre-auction price. Is it risky? Yes. But then that's part of the rush for these guys.

And there's even a chance that some third party follows our bids up, and at a pre-arranged price (say $400,000) we both drop out and let them have the painting. Which will be real money from a real sale. Double win.

It's a rich man's game – you have to pay auctioneer's premiums, interest, insurance, packing and storage and none of those things are cheap in absolute terms. But it can beat the heck, on a risk-reward basis, out of leaving your cash on the overnight markets. And you get to hang out with some cool people, read about yourself in the papers and maybe score with some of those pretty girl who hang around the art world.

The commodity nature of the art – Hirst's Spin and Dot paintings and those endless Murakami's to name but three – is essential to the game. Bankers don't know much about art, they have no idea why one Victorian painting of a country lane is worth ten times more than another one. If they wanted valuations, they would have to hire an art consultant or ask the auction houses. But one Spin Painting looks like another. (And one Monet Haystack looks just like another as well. Red Jackie, Green Jackie, Yellow Haystack, Blue Haystack. These guys weren't the first to produce commodity art.) So if one Spin painting goes for $6m, so should the next. It's also why the publicity is so important: the bankers need to recognise the names. The books, the exhibitions, the jargon-filled articles in the Art magazines – all these go to creating and improving the artist's brand.

Seems too fantastical to be true? Do you really believe that these dealers actually hand over those sums of money when they buy their own artists? Do you really believe that Roman Abramovich, a man smart enough to get $12bn out of Putin's Russia, really handed over $80m of his own actual cash for a Francis Bacon painting? When he knows the only people with more money who buy paintings are the Arabs, so he has no market to sell on to? Anyway, if he wants to throw away money, he has Chelsea.

No. If something sounds crazy, it usually is. What I've described – and the endless variations a skilled trader can play – is about how it has to be. All that art was bought with money borrowed at low rates against a hefty fraction of its auction value. The real sales happen at much lower prices in private deals, and while the majority of auction dealings in regular artists are as kosher as auctions ever are, the dealings in the big-name brands are best assumed to be, well, fake. And if you're looking for at least one of the banks prepared to lend, why do you think UBS sponsored all those art fairs? Oh, and yes, all the auction houses know what's going on and yes they are that, well, client-focussed, though others may prefer the harsher word 'unscrupulous'. Read the books about them.

Friday, 14 May 2010

CD Player Part 2

In an earlier post I mentioned that I was having problems with getting delivery of a Marantz CD6003. Well, I picked it up on Wednesday morning, set it up and went up to town to see Whip It at the Prince Charles and then Psy from the Sept Doigts du Main at the Peacock Theatre. My fandom for Heloise Bourgeois is unabated. Thursday and Friday were basically staying in and listening to my new stereo set-up, because with the CD6003 matched to the PM6003 and the B&W speakers I bought earlier, the sound is utterly fantastic. The CD6003 replaced a Cambridge Azure, which was a little harsh and confused with the Marantz amp and B&W speakers. I wondered if I should have carpets on the floor or if I'd made a mistake - because the improvement that the Azure made to my previous system was very noticeable. But all that stuff about equipment matching is true. The sound from the Marantz CD and PM 6003s is clear, projects into the room, more detailed and much easier on the ear.

The young folk at work looked at me like I had just disembarked from the Ark - "a CD player? Do you still buy CD's" - and my reply was "Audiophile. MP3 files playing from your iPod just aren't going to make it."  I really can hear the difference. And it is worth every penny.

It's not been a restful week off. The hay fever wakes me up around 06:00 and won't let me get back to sleep. It's too cold and cloudy just to wander around anywhere. But sometimes time off is like that.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Vegetarian Bus

I've been passing this old Routemaster on Brewer Street for months, each time telling myself that I really should try it out. Just for the experience of sitting in a Routemaster and eating a meal. So one recent Sunday I did. 

I had the lentil soup and chickpea stew. Not sure how much that fitted in with my attempt to go carb-free for a few days to get back into my target range, but at least it wasn't a Shepards Pie laden with mashed potato.

The food is okay, I'm no real fan of vegetarian, the view is good and the bus moves every time the guy comes up from the kitchen. I should have carried on to Stockpot for a cheap and card-free salad, but my willpower isn't always what it should be. There's also a wonderful view over the rather tatty porn shops of Brewer Street.

How those places stay in business while the Internet drives record stores out of business almost weekly, I have no idea.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Smug Self-Satisfaction Writ Large

A couple of weeks ago I ordered a Marantz CD6003 through Sevenoaks Hi-Fi. There were availability problems, but they were confident they should be able to get me one by Saturday. Or not. Maybe next Saturday. Before the next Saturday I called them and made a polite fuss - I have a sixth sense when something isn't quite going right. They told me they were having problems getting a firm date out of Marantz, and I sent Marantz a snotty mail saying that it wsn't on for a company of their reputation to be unable to give delivery times for a piece of kit made in China - this isn't high-end lab-assembled kit we're talking about here. This is what I got as a reply. I promise you, it's cut-and-paste from the mail..

Good Afternoon,

Thank you for your feedback.  We are sad to hear that Sevenoaks sold so many of this unit that they completely depleted their stock.

You are correct this is one of our more highly produced products (within its niche you’ll understand) and is the possibly the most popular CD player in the UK at the minute.  The fact that it was awarded CD player of the year in its price range only drives sales even further beyond our expectation, to the point where we have had to increase production considerably – but even still it is almost not possible to keep up with the increased demand for this product. We had no way of knowing just exactly how well received this product would be – not to mention that it would get such a prestigious award.

What I can confirm for you however is that Kingston do have these on back order, but we are currently unable to confirm their anticipated delivery date – as the next stock consignment has not yet been allocated to retailers. As much as we’d like to be able to quote certain delivery times to our dealers when goods are not in stock at our central this is just not always possible due to logistical circumstances. When goods are in stock, we can usually have product to dealers in approximately 4 days shipped in from Europe.

It should not be too much longer now.

(I've left off the guy's name as a courtesy.)
I need say no more. By the by, Sevenoaks called round and found one for me which I should be picking up this week.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Rosabeth Moss Kanter's 10 Rules For Stifling Innovation

I first read these back in the 90's - I think. As I understand her career, Moss Kanter drank the corporate Kool-Aid a long, long time back and would never write anything like this now. Which is a shame, because this is life for the vast majority of analysts from a humble market research company all the way up to the CIA. I'm publishing them because they need to be keep in circulation.

1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion - because it is new and because it is from below. 

2. Insist that people who need your approval to act first go through several other layers of management to get their signatures. 

3. Ask departments or individuals to challenge and criticise each other's proposals. 

4. Treat problems as a sign of failure. 

5. Express your criticisms freely and withhold your praise (that keeps people on their toes). Let them know they can be fired at any time.

6. Control everything carefully. Count anything that can be counted, frequently. 

7. Make sure that any request for information is fully justified and that it isn't distributed too freely (you don't want data to fall into the wrong hands). 

8.Make decisions to reorganise or change policies in secret and spring them on people unexpectedly (that also keeps people on their toes)

9. Assign to lower-level managers, in the name of delegation and participation, responsibility for figuring out how to cut back, lay off or move people around. 

10. Never forget that you, the higher-ups, already know everything important about this business.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Denial and Other Intellectual Sins

How should we believe? Notice, not "what", but "how". One answer, justificationism, is that we should only believe things for which we have good evidence. What counts as "good evidence" is, of course, a far from simple question, especially since there are hefty legal textbooks devoted to the Law of Evidence, which is about what may and may not be given in Court as evidence and how much weight it should be given. Justificationist sins are things like speculation, excessive theorising, superstition, gossip, ignorance and jumping to conclusions. Justificationism can be finessed if you stretch the concept of evidence way past its intended observational / empirical interpretation. 

Another answer comes from fallibalism, the creation of Sir Karl Popper. According to this, we can believe pretty much what we like, as long as we specify the conditions under which we would give up that belief. And then do give it up when those conditions are met (though faute de mieux we may have to carry on using it in practice). Fallibalist sins are things like dogmatism, faith, commitment, stubbornness, lack of imagination and blind acceptance. Fallibalism cannot be finessed because it's binary: you're either willing to give up your beliefs or not.

Does it matter if someone commits one of these intellectual sins? If the sinners are bringing their children up believing nonsense, that matters to the kids and the parents if the nonsense puts them at a competitive disadvantage in the job or marriage market, and to the rest of us if we have to deal with the kids. If the sinners are widely-read (e.g. Daily Mail columnists) we may have to listen to their nonsense second-hand. There's a pollution factor, in other words. If the sinners are at the Policy Table, they may well get in the way of a better compromise, or if the rest of the people at the Table are spineless, the bigots may prevail. So we get bad policies - which may ruin a lot of people's lives.

Both fallibalism and justificationism assume that people will accept the facts as given, even if they don't accept the alleged consequences of those facts. There is a sin against this assumption, and that's denial. Epistemologists have not written much about denial, and for about the same reason they haven't written much about propaganda and advertising: it's an activity based on the very reverse of knowledge-gathering. There are two kinds of denial: the classic psychoanalytical denial of the addict, drunk, abuser and generalised screw-up, and the denial of the politician and corporate manager. Managerial denial is knowing that something is not true, but behaving publicly as if it is true and requiring everyone else to go along with that lie. Classic denial is either refusing to accept the truth or refusing to accept its importance and forcing everyone else to go along with that refusal. Classic denial is that Daddy doesn't have a drinking problem while hefting him upstairs after he's passed out: managerial denial is pretending that a few online courses constitute valuable training. If you're considering denial as a choice, remember that your staff may prefer to think you're dumb rather than devious.

Denial is a sin because it prevents other people from understanding a chunk (usually an important one, like family, or employing organisation) of their world correctly. Usually it distorts not only our view of our world, but worse, our view of ourselves ("Now look what you did, he's drinking again" - you know what? It was nothing to do with you.) It takes up huge amounts of energy - just think of how much effort goes into all that corporate internal PR / HR bullshit - and thus prevents other useful things being done (when you're in some company denial-fest, you're not doing something useful). 

Sadly, as I've remarked before and will do again, the English consider denial to be a desirable state of mind - if the English weren't in denial about the quality of life in England they would go on the rampage in a week. They will make any excuse for those who foist their denial on those around them - presumably as a fellow courtesy. Those of use whose lives have been truly screwed by the denial of ourselves and others know it is the worst of all intellectual sins. That's why I get so het up when I'm on the receiving end of it.

Monday, 3 May 2010

You're An Artist If You Say You Are

When can you claim to be a writer, or a philosopher or a lawyer? Well, the last one is easy: pass your LLB and then either join the Law Society (Solicitors) or get called to the Bar (Barristers). How about philosophers? Well, when I was a lad, some people called themselves "professional philosophers", but they were professional teachers of philosophy (many of whom got their start in it as a reward for working at Bletchley during WW2, but nobody talked about that for a long time). Most of the big name philosophers had day jobs - Descartes as a gambler, Spinoza as a watchmaker, Locke and Hume as private secretaries, Berkeley was a Bishop, Wittgenstein was only an academic for the second half of his life, and so on. I'm a philosopher and always have been, but it's not my day job. How about writers?

Well, the Society of Authors requires you to have had one full-length work published or performed not at your expense or a dozen occasional articles published. Seems minimal enough. So what's the status of someone who is writing and working hard to get their first commercial publication or performance? Are they a delusional wannabe, deserving only of secret sniggers until blessed by publication? I used to think so, but then I was a very fucked-up young man. To adapt a remark of George V Higgins',  you have more opportunities of making a living as an MP than as a writer of fiction. Most writers have day jobs, usually as journalists or academics. Are they "Sunday writers", mere dilettantes, compared to John Le Carre or John Grisham? I say no.

There's a lovely line in one of my favourite movies, Dinner Rush: the obnoxious art critic tells Summer Phoenix's portrait-painting waitress "You're an artist if you say you are, you're a successful artist..." "If he says you are" chimes in someone in the party. I thought a lot about that line and finally decided it's true. No-one out there gets to decide who or what you are - with the exception of a handful of occupations which are legislatively-controlled (policeman, accountant, truck driver etc). They do get to decide if you can make a living doing what you want to do, because that's the market. You're a writer because you write stories or articles, you consciously develop your technique and research, you have a vision of what kind of work you want to do and from time to time you venture out into the world to get published or produced. It's that last bit I need to work on.

Which is an improvement. I used to ask other people if they "thought I could write". Well, now I know I can. I know hack writing when I read it or see it and I know I'm not a hack. If you don't like what I write about, well, there's a lot of stuff I wouldn't read either, but that doesn't mean the people who produce it aren't writers. I don't need someone else to tell me I can write. What I do need is someone to help produce my work.