Archive for the 'what knackered the hack?' Category
One of the most unanswerable questions you’re likely to be asked in a job interview is “Do you think you’re tough enough to stand up to Piers Morgan?” Unfortunately I’ve had that question put to me.
Several years ago, by dint of having the two words “managing” and “editor” next to one another on my CV, Trinity Mirror called me in to see them in the possibly mistaken belief that I could help dig them out of a very big hole. I was pretty sure I could help in some way, but I think we had a different view of what type of hole they were dealing with. Given Piers Morgan‘s inexorable rise on two continents as the mean-spirited arbiter of folksy talent, might I humbly propose that this is the mother of all interview posers? Top it if you can.
To be sure, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, as usual. There was a small coda to this interview conversation which involved another legendary Fleet Street figure: an experience which finally persuaded me it was time to steer a reciprocal course to the one Fleet Street was headed down and, boat-hook in hand, retrieve my bedraggled dignity. As tabloid journalists allegedly say in potentially compromising situations: “I made my excuses and left.”
Rightly or wrongly, and with rare exceptions, my approach to news management had been unusually low-key: a function of personality combined with the demands of real-time, I think. I was always more interested in process than result. That’s what I offered in that interview, and I suspect that it was mistaken for weakness and (worse still) inexperience, whereas for them it should have represented a diverse perspective. My interviewer, I could tell, was not convinced.
Mercifully one of us escaped. I think it was probably me, though maybe it was Piers. So, in my sotto voce way, this knackered hack is finally taking a hyper-linked opportunity to stand up to Piers Morgan: something that in real life only a handful of people seem ever to have done, and the Fates denied me the opportunity to chance my arm at.
Morgan was honoured this week with a slot on the BBC radio show Desert Island Discs: the longest-running music programme in the history of radio. It is the mama of all mixtapes: you get to choose the records that define your experience and broadcast them to the nation. Although Bob Geldof famously said that it is only a radio show, I reckon an invitation to appear is greeted by most in the same way as being tapped by Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s birthday honours.
Piers Morgan’s life is a catalogue of rather ghastly errors, none of which seems to have been a setback to his advances to fame and fortune: a modern day Bel Ami, perhaps? So it seems like a category error for our public service broadcaster to accord him such high-quality attention. But hey, there goes the neighbourhood. For those who want to see if theirs is a match for his musical taste, this link should do it. Me, I’m averting my eyes.
In at least one of those counter-factual universes of infinite mathematical possibility, the Knackered Hack has himself been granted the honour of discussing his own desert island discs before an eager nation. In this same universe, Piers Morgan blogs and nobody reads.
Here’s a small taste of what my list contains. Until a few weeks ago Haydn would not have been on my modest mixtape. For undisclosable reasons he has now hopped in. The words, courtesy of the ChoralWiki, are below. And for those who read me for stuff on decision-making, Haydn seems to have been on to heuristics and biases long before any of us. You may have to think about this one a little bit.
Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)
Insanae et vanae curae invadunt mentes nostras,
saepe furore replent corda, privata spe,
Quid prodest O mortalis conari pro mundanis,
si coelos negligas,
Sunt fausta tibi cuncta, si Deus est pro te.
Vain and raging cares invade our minds,
Madness often fills the heart, robbed of hope,
O mortal man, what does it profit to endeavour at worldly things,
if you should neglect the heavens?
If God is for you, all things are favorable for you.
In the middle of that 2001 Chapter 11 process, I was being primed for information in the Tipperary pub in Fleet Street. The “Tip” is the oldest Irish pub in England and the first ever to sell Guinness here, or so the free information on the internet tells me today. I did not know that then. There was plenty of free information available in 2001 despite a relative shortage of comprehensive pub histories. All the same, you still had to pay for the Guinness. And that’s invariably the case today.
I was with a very senior colleague who was plying me with the black stuff; I think he’d been asked to keep an eye on me and my rank-breaking entrepreneurship. I said to him that I thought part of the problem for even highly specialized subscription content businesses, like the one we were proposing to launch out of the bankruptcy, was that so much generic news was then free on the internet. This factor perhaps had already tipped investor sentiment away from the concept of proprietary news content. I suggested that one of the principal reasons for this may have been the example set by our competitor, the news agency Reuters, in selling its news feed to search engine/portal Yahoo!, without obvious limitations on what could be published.
“Oh, I did that deal!” said the executive. Imagine the Knackered Hack coughing into his artisan-poured pint, spraying his “mentor” with white foam. [For sure, that's not what happened exactly, but I'm not a factual journalist any more; I don't carry an NUJ card these days and even my poetic licence is provisional.]
Some of us had known for a long while that the value proposition of unbundled real-time news was not what it once was. It wasn’t a good time to be giving so much of it away. Reuters seem to have wised up a couple of years ago because they no longer operate that Yahoo! deal.
But I still wonder, in my counter-factual way, if such a vast organization as Reuters had not taken that fork in the road so prominently would other news media have felt so compelled to provide so much stuff for nothing? And thence GoogleNews. Would a viable subscription model not have been built by now to get the more innovative news organizations [oxymoron warning] cleanly out of the ink-on-dead-trees business? Perhaps not.
There may be more lessons from the real-time news industry of the ‘80s and ‘90s for today’s media to illustrate the tragedy/farce heuristic. Anyone interested in another chapter on that soon?
Photo credit trickyDonate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)
As heuristics go, just as the most expensive wine on the wine list is not to be trusted, writers should be given a wide berth if they quote the first lines of books, especially if they are quoting Marx paraphrasing Hegel.
At the start of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, a book which I probably have read in its entirety (but don’t quote me), the bearded one says this:-
Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Chevy Tahoe, first a gas-guzzler, then a hybrid?
I risk getting into even deeper water with the mathematicians for suggesting there is something of the self-similar in Marx’s statement, and then with historians for invoking the idea that history repeats itself. Perhaps I’d be safe with Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.
Yesterday General Motors announced it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is on a grand, publicly-listed, credit-fuelled scale (GMs’ annual revenue was $149 billion last year, and it’s lost more than $80 billion in the past four years, its market capitalization collapsing from a surprising $26 billion in October 2007, when the credit crisis was well underway, to next to nothing.) The German and US governments have intervened to save jobs.
My own experience of Chapter 11 in 2001 was a less remarked upon affair (less than $1billion in revenue). But at their respective times, within their respective universes, the two Chapter 11 incidents share significance: the words “too big to fail” were uttered in both instances.
There is no shortage of animal spirits evident in either, some interesting uses of expenses, and for those observing closely (perhaps that’s just me in my Chief Brody hat ) the one may have heralded the other. Did the one in fact scale into the other? GM is now perhaps the most iconic victim of the credit crunch, which through my long-path-dependent-tinted spectacles was hinted at way back when, in the perennial struggle between debt and equity.
The Chapter 11 that dissolved the news organization I worked for merited very little press comment; ironic given that 600 global journalism jobs disappeared more or less overnight. Almost without exception those jobs were engaged in purely factual reporting: the scrutinizing of financial markets, banking and economic and monetary policy. Instructive perhaps, given the current collapse of news businesses the world over, that they were entirely online, publishing by corporate subscription, and over internet protocol for several years already. They could not be saved because the consensus then was that this market was already oversupplied. News was a commodity, and only so much was necessary to lubricate the inner workings of global financial markets.
I’ve long since given up the conceit that the factual information output of my professional career met some fundamental human need (except the feeding of my family). This was a way that I used to comfort myself: as a journalistic form, economic and financial newswire reporting could legitimately claim a fourth-estate function of representing important facts about the world, even if it was bounded in its day-to-day ability to call policy-makers and financiers fully to account. It was not the sharpest instrument, but it was probably a lot sharper than print journalism which in effect fed off some of its by-products.
I’ve already described how, in my own attempts to refinance this organization — as I moulted my middle-management plumage and temporarily tried on the peacock feathers of the imagined future CEO — I submitted with my colleagues a restructuring that would focus news reporting resources on the growing and mostly under-reported market in credit derivatives. That market was the one that made sense to my diverse rescue task force: whether their personal focus was Whitehall, currencies, commodities or companies, Essex-boy, anarchist or Etonian. In retrospect, it is clear that transparency and scrutiny of those complex markets would have been useful in the post-9/11 world. But in the summer of 2001, investors came there none. The lesson, as ever, seems to be: if you’re going to fail, fail big. Don’t pin your hopes for rescue on a knackered hack, but a newly minted Barack.
This takes us back to Robert Shiller and George Akerlof’s qualification of capitalism: “It does not automatically produce what people really need; it produces what they think they need, and are willing to pay for.” Since 2001, it is clear that a great many people, and at the same time too few, thought they needed GM’s Chevy Tahoe SUV. President Obama agrees that they need more. Me? I’m not so sure.
Photo credit Chevy Tahoe: anthonaresDonate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)
Down in the comments of an earlier music post I dug up a seminal BBC documentary about Richard Feynman. I must have seen it when it first came out. I recommend you plug your computer into the TV, sit down and watch it with any children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces or godchildren; there may be no greater gift. A few minutes in he says this:
When you are thinking about something that you don’t understand you have a terrible, uncomfortable feeling called ‘confusion’. It’s a very difficult and unhappy business. So, most of the time you are rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion. You can’t penetrate this thing. Now, is the confusion… is it because we are all some kind of apes that are kind of stupid working against this? Trying to figure out to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can’t quite make it? …the idea ? And I get that feeling all the time: that I am an ape trying to put two sticks together. So I always feel stupid. Once in a while, though, everything — the sticks — go together on me and I reach the banana.”
When it came to deciding on a business card for the blog, there must have been some spooky action operating at a distance, for this is what we came up with.
Long-time readers will remember my own grappling with bananas only to find that, as usual, I was thwarted. Parce que…
banana photo credit -eko-Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)
The standard biographical narrative of Shaw was that his performing career — which experienced some of the highest peaks in 20th century commercial musical achievement — was punctuated by periods of creative and physical exhaustion, including revulsion toward his popular success. So, not many similarities to the Knackered Hack’s experience, except the downside elements, I admit.
In one of his later periods of retreat, it seems that Shaw was preoccupied with studying high-level mathematics. I wonder if his creativity could perhaps be defined by the concept of Lévy flights? Now, if you think I’m talking Jackson Pollocks here, you might indeed be right. For the distribution of paint by the very same may have been following some form of fractal pattern:-
There are two revolutionary aspects to Pollock’s application of paint and both have potential to introduce chaos. The first is his motion around the canvas. In contrast to traditional brush-canvas contact techniques, where the artist’s motions are limited to hand and arm movements, Pollock used his whole body to introduce a wide range of length scales into his painting motion. In doing so, Pollock’s dashes around the canvas possibly followed Levy flights: a special distribution of movements, first investigated by Paul Levy in 1936, which has recently been used to describe the statistics of chaotic systems.
I understand there is a risk of seeing heavy-tailed distributions everywhere, particularly to my untrained eye. But with the creative arts — the clustering of success — it does seem to follow.
I wonder too if it explains, at a very banal level, the frequency of my blog posting, about which I know a few of you are concerned. To illustrate the two extremes of recent Knackered Hack experience, some Artie Shaw to entertain you. In the meantime, I will be trying to produce a cluster of posts. Shaw fans can correct me, but the first piece below reflected the essence of the man, while the second was what people liked him for. The titles will amuse Mandelbrotian students of markets. And Shaw’s exuberant swing music flourished in the depression.
At the end of this one, Artie Shaw and sidekicks explore bounded rationality and sum up the perennial challenge for all businesses.Donate and help me buy back my Fender ('About' tells you why)