Archive for the 'celebrities' Category

Ready.. Aim.. Fire!The BBC announced spending cuts last week, fearing that the recession will lead to TV licence fee evasion and reduced revenues. According to the FT,  it banned the corporate purchase of champagne in a sop to the newspapers, after being forced to reveal an annual spend on the bubbly stuff of £40,000. Of course, if the BBC had something to celebrate, this expenditure–provided it was on Veuve Clicquot–would not look like such a mistake. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Beeb brass were defending themselves in Parliament for the Brand/Ross/Sachs scandal.

It’s bad to bash the BBC if you get a lot out of the BBC, as I do. But it does often seem to be an organization that has lost its way. It remains somewhat technically innovative, although with unintended consequences (iPlayer), produces good costume dramas (Jane Austin/Dickens etc), entertains the kids well on Saturday evening (Dr Who, Robin Hood, Merlin) and continues its flagship natural history programmes, although these are starting to be more photographic than informational. Don’t tell anyone, but for the past few months I’ve come to believe that Radio 3 might actually be perfect.

More generally, though, its editorial and commissioning decisions seem not to be informed by either a current or future sense of what its public service needs to be. I’m waiting for the day, for instance, when its senior management is hauled before the UK’s Treasury Select Committee to answer questions about the role its programmes on property played in fuelling the real estate bubble.  But then, I wonder if the committee members have yet gotten round to reading any Robert Shiller. This, of course, is old news, well visited by belligerent websites, and even mainstream newspapers have pointed a similar finger, except of course that their own property supplements played an essential part in peddling the idea that rising property prices were for keeps.

But given that we are now at the end of a period of speculative excess, that we collectively passed the last outpost of the Shit Creek Paddle Company Shit Creek Paddle Companysome time ago and failed to take on supplies, it is hard to explain a programme I saw last week called Beat the Bank. Dragons’ Den fitness millionaire Duncan Bannatyne invited a young couple to wager their £10,000 house deposit on the abilities of one of three alleged experts to exceed the return from bank interest over three months.

The leading experts brought in were from the world of fine wine, antiques and fine art. Charming though these people were, they represented markets one could reasonably assume are highly correlated with the recent credit-fuelled boom, Veuve Clicquot HQ, Reims, Franceand not without their own fair share of fakers and finaglers to make the average punter’s chance of “beating the bank” slim at best.

But what bothered me was the premise that money in the bank was for schmucks. And none of us would want to be schmucks. The opposite in fact is true. Most of us are schmucks, and the bank is the best place for our money. The social service that the banks provide, or should provide, is as a repository of funds where we (the clueless, idle, or generally insecure) should choose to lay down our hard-earned, our windfalls and our easy-pickings, while the bank lends it out with discretion and on reasonable terms to the those with ideas, the adventurous, the quiet risk-takers, entrepreneurs and even the occasional desperado, each individually to try their luck: to fail, break-even or succeed, and on balance pay us back a decent rate of interest. All that while keeping the bank in sturdy buildings, functional IT, an occasional boozy lunch and not to forget the annual bonus payment–which should be conditional and deferred by 10 years (at least).

Squircle - Veuve Clicquot Champagne BottleThe idea that we should set a challenge to deliver excess returns over a three-month period flies in the face of all that a public service broadcaster should be providing in way of financial education. It would not be so bad if the three-month expectations cycle did not already blight the ability of many publicly-listed firms to deliver sustainable economic growth, lure them into all sorts of obfuscation or encourage all sorts of counter-productive hoop-jumping to appear to be performing satisfactorily.

If there’s a lesson that the BBC might better highlight to the risk-taker–whether in the domain of business, art, or experimental science, or even for those planning to cultivate a great vintage– it’s that you may have to bleed for forever and a day waiting for your ship to come in, before the muse descends or that eureka moment arrives, or some final vindication materializes from out of the blue. Then you’ll feel justified in tearing off the foil, untwisting the wire and popping your cork.

Veuve Photo credits: Top: Andrei Z , Middle: Matt Hamm, Bottom: jillclardy

Paddle Shop:  SailorRandR

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Jake Thackray was a Yorkshireman and troubadour (no, really), inspired by Georges Brassens. Good hunter-gatherers should be in bed early, but because of a journalistic (if not civic) duty to watch the US election coverage, allied with a bit of US jet-lag, I was accidentally around when the BBC aired a late night documentary on Thackray last Monday. I remember him from my childhood, when he did a regular turn on a consumer rights/light entertainment show called That’s Life, famous for finding dogs that could say “sausages”: the lolcats of its day.

A fortnight ago, the BBC’s highest paid presenter (Jonathan Ross) was suspended, and one of its rising stars (Russell Brand) fired, for an offensive prank phone call to ageing Faulty Towers comedy actor Andrew Sachs concerning the night-time activities of his granddaughter. One defence, I think from a BBC type, suggested that their misdemeanour was perhaps an inevitable part of a risk-taking comedy culture. Despite a Facebook support group set up to defend the two overpaid scallywags’ human rights, and despite the fact that some of my Twitter chums think what happened to the two is a travesty, I am a bit more hard-nosed. Watching Jonathan Ross’s performances over the years, it seemed increasingly likely that there would be a blow-up at some stage, which is now unfortunately squandering BBC goodwill just as it tries to defend its public service remit.

Ironically, self-deprecating Thackray offers a perfect lesson to managers in general, managers of “The Talent” in particular, and the talent itself in this wonderful song entitled The Bull. There might even be a message in there for bankers, central and otherwise. The contrast between the talent of Thackray and Brand/Ross looks quite stark, when it comes to pushing the boundaries of taste and decency for comedic effect.The clip has a slight hiatus, so hang on in there.

And if you’re wondering what that missing verse contains, curiously, I can’t find a CD including this song.  However, a boxed set of Thackray is available below (with a number entitled Black Swan – I wonder what that’s about? ;-) ).

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If there is one thing to be disappointed by in Barak Obama’s US presidential election victory it is that a lot of people who previously despised America are now happily declaring the US to be likeable again. To fall out of love with America because of electoral accidents and occasional egregious foreign policy mistakes, or to believe in some glib caricature of the crass American, ignores the enduring value of the US to the rest of the world. And when I think of the US, its primary virtue invariably seems to be that it’s a country of rejects. I wonder sometimes whether those who do the most loathing of the US might well have been the types the average American ancestor would have had to run away from some decade or century earlier at the point of a bayonet.

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with my two children: both newly minted US citizens. They had themselves been through a kind of virtual Ellis Island a couple of days before in the Federal Building near City Hall; after a nearly four-hour wait, they swore allegiance and in return received a certificate and letter from George Dubbya himself. As a special treat–because they were the last and seemingly the only children processed that day–they both got a little flag.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, October 2008

For the forebears of about 100 million Americans, a five-hour wait at Ellis Island itself was often the final chapter in an escape from famine, humiliation, hopelessness, religious intolerance or full-scale pogrom. The facility closed in 1954, and–if the account of the museum is to be believed–it was a pretty humane place, all things considered, especially compared with other places of mass human transit the world has seen over the past century. While 12 million entered through Ellis Island, only 2 per cent were turned away.

Of course, if you were really posh your immigration details would be processed on board ship; only the cattle class passed through Ellis Island (including the likes of Bob Hope, Irving Berlin, Isaac Asimov and Max Factor). And today, one of the central arguments of our current politics is income inequality. I like to have my cake and eat it on the subject: on the one hand, it never bothers me what others earn, and I certainly believe there need to be good incentives for the creative and entrepreneurial to take risk; on the other, when it starts to be a hot potato you may surmise that something has started to get out of hand–as it has done on Wall Street and among senior executives over the past few years. All reward and no risk. The fuss was perhaps a leading indicator.

Pay differentials are a much less important determinant of long-term economic success (and health), as far as I can tell, than the uneven distribution of grandmothers. Obama, until the beginning of this week, had both grandmothers extant: extraordinary for a man of 47. He was mostly raised by one (his mother’s mother), confirming how important they are in loco parentis. The immigrant experience is not always so fortunate; a limiting factor on economic, entrepreneurial, academic or even sporting achievement can be the availability of extended family to provide logistical (let alone moral) support, especially in a childcare situation. In aggregate, this holds up the progress of the immigrant group. Of course, things may vary in individual cases, and there were indeed a few babushki apparent from the pictures at Ellis Island, along with touching stories of adult children being reunited with their parents.

Well, the youngest Chip Off the Old Hack is not so lucky. Both his grandmothers were carried away by cancer and were thus denied the opportunity to coo over his crib. But such is the wisdom of the US immigration authorities that, a few years ago, they decided that they will naturalize a child through his US grandparent, provided the grandparent meets (or met when living) the necessary residency qualification. So, there are now a couple of extra Obama supporters in the citizenry–not that he needs them at the moment, of course.

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If I had to nominate a piece of music to emulate Alan Yentob’s fMRI scan experience, I wonder if Andreas Scholl‘s performance of Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater would do the trick. I bought it at random in the Music Discount Centre CD shop near St Paul’s many years ago and could not stop listening to it — a complete accident, and something so arch I would have run a mile in the opposite direction if you’d suggested that I’d be forever captivated by the purity of this counter-tenor voice.

Well, to keep ploughing a furrow of recycling BBC programmes, here is a link (valid for about six days) to a show from Tuesday on Radio 3 where Scholl was interviewed (about 15 mins in), proving the virtue of my wall-to-wall listening to Radio 3 the past two months.

For students of corporate hubris (like me) it’s always interesting to hear experts in their particular field — let alone a virtuoso of the highest standing — explain how they tackle performance. When it is mastering the Erbarme Dich within the Bach St Matthew Passion, we should all sit up and pay attention:-

Scholl: Whenever you open your mouth and try to do justice to this piece, it is only possible with 100% heart, soul, body, technique. Everything needs to come together in that moment.

Sean Rafferty (Presenter): And a degree of humility, I think.

Scholl: Absolutely. The right perspective I would say. You should not walk out in a sense as if you composed the Matthew Passion or like the greatest moment will be me singing the Erbarme Dich. That’s vanity and that will destroy the piece. But also it will not help to walk out and thinking: ‘Mr Bach, I am not worthy of singing your music’. Because if you open your mouth you better are worthy to do that, better are good enough. So you either think you can do it then you give it everything. But if you have doubts that you can really bring justice to this piece then you should not sing it. It’s all or nothing with Bach, I would say.

So, it’s crucial to be neither too confident nor too humble. Well, Andreas Scholl may not be everyone’s bag, and I dare anyone to tell me the Pergolesi is better. I will stop now as I am at the very limit of my musical knowledge.

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Today marks 20 years since the Soviet army began withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Plus ça change, you could say. It’s not an anniversary I’m seeing flagged up in the media today. But then, we’re used to wandering the road less travelled over here at the Knackered Hack – if not completely untravelled.

Kino Concert Roll 1001

Crucial to the mounting tide of pressure that led to Soviet withdrawal was an opening up of the culture that started in early Spring 1986 when I visited Leningrad and met Kino‘s Viktor Tsoi (whom I snapped this picture of while he tuned up at a small concert in April ’86).

The song Peremen (or Changes) was an important anthem for that period, and perhaps Tsoi’s most recognized contribution to the tectonic shift in our geo-politics of the past two decades. It appeared to help mobilize Soviet youth culture toward a more democratic and uncertain future, even though accounts suggest that this was not Tsoi’s direct intention.

I’ve been very much taken with the following video of the song. The visuals aren’t of Viktor, of course, but this is nonetheless a powerful interpretation. I don’t know if he is using any recognised sign language (can anybody illuminate me?) but it certainly conveys something forcefully, whatever that something is. This was, incidentally, used as the soundtrack for a DIY, low-budget yet critically-acclaimed Russian film Dust (2005). I’ve not seen it, but this review sounds compelling if you are an art-house type.

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