Sunday, 30 March 2014

Wikileaks reveals…the importance of table manners

Julian Assange, photographed outside Ellingham Hall

Wikileaks has radically changed the way I see our world. Not the way I see war, liberty or the role of the state – a lot of the material Wikileaks leaked, was, frankly, unsurprising – but the way I see table manners. Wikileaks' leadership team retained what sanity they had, thanks to a regimen of strict table manners.

This thought comes from the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets: the Story of Wikileaks. In it, there is a period when the Wikileaks inner circle of about fifteen people are stuck in Ellingham Hall, Norfolk, on journalist Vaughn Smith’s country estate. They can’t leave Ellingham Hall; the MI6, CIA etc. are out to get them. So they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, with just each other for company, united only by their distrust of the outside world, each day melting into the next, as weeks run into months which run into years.

How did they manage to keep things civilized? By enforcing very strict rules on table manners. Vaughn Smith and his housekeeper enforced strict table etiquette, three meals a day, for over five hundred days of maddening claustrophobia.

Must have been the same dynamic in colonial officer’s messes, and up in the tea plantations.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Agnieszka Radwanska endorses Cheesecake Factory: the return of real marketing

Aga Radwanska @ Wimbledon

Aga Raswanska now endorses Cheesecake Factory. 

Refreshingly, she actually likes the Cheesecake Factory. She isn't just endorsing a random brand because they paid her lots of money.

She has been writing about visits to Cheesecake Factory restaurants on her blog for a couple of years now. "Can you imagine we tried almost every kind of cheesecake there during Indian Wells and Miami? Well except one — peanut butter... because I don't really like peanut butter," she wrote. "It's very close to the hotel, which is dangerous, because we could end up going there every night. We went yesterday. Maybe we'll try to cut down to every second night.". The Cheesecake Factory marketing people picked up on this, and an endorsement deal resulted. 

This feels like what celebrity endorsements ought to be about: not cynical money-making by a "media property", but a well known person sharing her genuine enthusiasm for a brand.  

Aga Radwanska @ The Cheesecake Factory

Thursday, 13 February 2014

What Yesterday, The Beatles' song, is really about

It isn’t a love song. It is about Paul McCartney's mother's death.

I found out from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, from this interview with Paul McCartney airing on NPR this week, in honour of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ conquest of America.

In the interview, Paul talks about how he lost his mother as a teenager. John Lennon also lost his mother at about the same age, and that shared experience of loss was a deep bond John and Paul shared. However, as working class lads from the North, they couldn’t talk about it. It just wasn’t done. It was put to Paul much later in life that Yesterday might be about his feelings when his mother died, and it dawned on Paul that that was probably true.

The song sounds different now, now that I know this interpretation. Still a great song. But different.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Satya Nadella: The Rorschach Ink Blot CEO

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO
Since Satya Nadella’s appointment as Microsoft's CEO, my Facebook news feed and email inbox have been chock-a-block with stories about what Mr Nadella's success means.

Some think Satya Nadella’s success is a triumph for “Indian values, like empathy, patience and humility”. Others think it is “a slap in the face for the Indian system” (because Mr Nadella felt the need to emigrate to the USA); that it reflects the “failure of the IITs” (because such a prestigious tech job went to a guy from lowly Manipal University); that it is a triumph for the game of cricket  (because Satya learnt about leadership and teamwork as a cricket playing schoolboy in Hyderabad); that it reflects the greatness of Amercia (because you don’t have to be Bill Gates’ son to become CEO of Microsoft); that it reflects the failure of America (because homegrown talent lags so far behind educated, motivated immigrants); that it reflects the skills Mr. Nadella learnt at his family dinner table (his father was a senior IAS officer who served on India’s Planning Commission); etc. etc.

All these interpretations are have some basis in fact. But having absorbed all these interpretations, my conclusion is that Satya Nadella's success is a contemporary Rorschach Ink Blot test. Any observer’s interpretation tells you a lot about the observer's state of mind. It tells you little or nothing about the meaning of Mr Nadella’s success, because Mr. Nadella’s success doesn’t actually mean anything, beyond the very specific context of Microsoft’s executive team.

The human brain is amazingly good at seeing patterns, even when there aren’t any patterns to see.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

"Hindostan is an Italy of Asiatic dimensions", Karl Marx, 1853

Karl Marx didn't have a whole lot to say about India, and a lot of what he prescribed turned out to be utterly poisonous, but this thought, likening India to an Asian Italy, is still fascinating. 

I know it from researching a debate way back when I was in college. It came back to mind this morning, reading Frank Bruni's oped piece in the New York times titled "Italy Breaks Your Heart". Bruni piece describes a country - ancient grandeur and contemporary political dysfunction, a "terrific" high-speed rail line and uncleared garbage on the streets of the capital city - that could be India, almost word for word.

My glass half full interpretation of that parallel: despite everything, Italy's per capita GDP at PPP is above $30,000. India is at about $3,900. Despite everything, things in India can still get a whole lot better.  

Hindostan, Asia's Italy

Italy, Europe's India

BTW...Karl Marx's article on India, in the New York Herald Tribune, is available here. Worth a read. Wish I'd had Google while researching debates back in college.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Roger Federer's Next Career: Doubles #1

Federer and Wawrinka. Olympic Gold medalists in 2008

Earlier this week, Roger Federer lost to Gael Monfils in the third round of the Shanghai Open, setting off a flurry of twittering among the Roger-ists. Many think their hero is better off retiring now, still close to the top, rather than fading away slowly and inelegantly.

On the flip side of the argument, Roger clearly still wants to show up and play, despite the indignities of his declining win:loss ratio. As a fan, surely this is something to be happy about. Surely Roger gives more to the world with a racquet in his hand than as another talking head on TV (like Boris Becker), or as an underwear manufacturing entrepreneur (like Bjorn Borg).   

Leander Paes, Grand Slam champion at 40
In that context, Limca Cuts from Planet Earth would like to propose a path that allows Roger, and fans like us, have it both ways: quit singles, focus on doubles.

Roger, 32, can realistically expect to play another decade of top flight doubles. Roger's classical style lends itself well to doubles. Leander Paes just demonstrated the longevity of doubles players by winning the US Open at 40.

Roger’s presence also gives a much needed injection of glamour to the doubles game. Doubles is the mainstay of amateur tennis. It is every bit as watchable as singles (refer Davis Cup), but still gets so little media coverage because it lacks narratives, lacks personalities. A bit of Federer stardust will help set that right. 

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Moonwalking with Einstein. On why I blog, and take pictures

Just finished this excellent book called Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer. Among its many pleasures was this passage, which feels close to the heart of what keeps me blogging, or taking photographs, for that matter:

Until relatively recently…people had only a few books – the Bible, an almanac, a devotional work or two – and they read them over and over again, usually aloud and in groups, so that a narrow range of traditional literature became deeply impressed on their consciousness.

But after the printing press appeared around 1440, things began gradually to change. In the first century after Gutenberg, it because possible for the first time, for people without great wealth to have a small library in their own homes...

Today, we read books “extensively”, without much in the way of sustained focus, and with rare exceptions, we read each book only once. We value quantity over quality of reading. We have no choice, if we want to keep up with the broader culture. Few of us make any serious effort to remember what we read…

We read and read and read, and forget and forget and forget. So why do we bother? Michael de Montaigne expressed the dilemma of extensive reading in the sixteenth century: “I leaf through books, I do not study them”, he wrote. “What I retain of them is something I no longer recognize as anyone else’s. It is only the material from which my judgment has profited, and the thoughts and ideas with which it has become imbued; the author, the place, the words, and other circumstances, I immediately forget.”

He goes on to explain how “to compensate a little for the treachery and weakness of my memory”, he adopted the habit of writing in the back of every book a short critical judgment, so as to have at least some general idea of that the tome was about and what he thought of it.

I know that works for me too. Synthesizing a thought on what a book, or movie, or trip was about, and writing it down, makes the experience itself richer, more memorable.

Joshua Foer