Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Thankyou London Underground

The Tube is on strike today. Everybody's cursing (including me). Meaning, it's not a bad day to remember one of my favourite poems, an ode to the London Underground, which I discovered on the London Underground:

Here's to the gaps, the maps
And the elapse of a hundred and fifty years since that first
Steaming monster hurled
Through its Metropolitan Minotaur world.
To all the billiard ball-bottomed straps onto which I've hung.
And here's to the police office, who, when I was illegally
    busking outside Westminster Station, approached me and said,
'Do you know any Neil Young?'

Friday, 25 April 2014

St George the Dragon Slayer? Or St George the Lizard Eater?

St. George's Day Posters in London c. 2014

Is England’s patron Saint George a dragon slayer? Or a lizard eater?

The question is prompted by these posters promoting St. George's Day, prominently displayed across the metropolis, blessed by the Lord Mayor of London himself. The weapon the beast is impaled upon is, obviously, a table fork. In which case, the beast itself can’t be much bigger than a garden lizard. 

Do people eat lizards? Do heroes eat lizards?

Quite different from the way the dragon slayer was depicted in more heroic times….

St. George Slays the Dragon, by Raphael c. 1504

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.