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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apple crunch

08Aug08

Never mind credit risk, the risk of a falling tree (or a branch at least) has been on my mind for nearly five years. A large oak tree, listed by the local authority, and which I don’t own but which overhangs my front garden, has lost rotten branches with nearly every gale during that time. And I’ve worried, with each puff of wind, that one might end up hitting me/the kids/wife/milkman or the increasing number of Fed-Ex deliverers of dead-tree books for me to (not quite get round to) review.

A few weeks ago, the person responsible for the tree finally got the necessary approval and had it duly pruned and thinned. Relief. Only the goldcrests that once or twice I’ve seen flitting in and out of the branches were inconvenienced.

09052008053

But it shows that, where you focus on one risk, an even greater and less obvious risk might be creeping up on you until some kind of tipping point is reached, and it figuratively knocks your block off.

Regular readers will know that I am probably a bit too hung up on all this self-organized criticality stuff. And the scientifically-trained may scoff that this may all be a metaphor too far. But bear with me while I indulge in a little narrative fallacy; it is the first anniversary of the credit crunch after all.

Sometime around 3pm on Wednesday there was a resounding crack when half an apple tree in the neighbour’s garden shuddered and collapsed into ours (amidst a confused shower of slightly immature green fruit) landing as it fell on a recently reconstructed Bath stone wall. Bizarrely, we were able to look out of the office window, just as the sound happened, and watch it fall.

Apple Crunch

Now, it may just have been a rotten bough that gave way, and that would have happened at that moment come hell or high water (there has been a lot of rain these past two years). But I’d suggest a slightly more complex chain of events led up to this apple windfall, one that would somewhat mitigate the failure to notice (on the part of the householder) the tree’s precarious state: I’m generous that way, you know. And, there may be a useful lesson in thinking about how and when a tipping point is reached, given what happened in the markets a year ago today.

Apple Crunch

Only a few months ago, a most enormous bay tree (as tall as a house, and with multiple trunks) was removed on our side so that the wall could be rebuilt and made safe (another long-time worry). I can’t say for sure, but since the bay tree went, the two apple trees either side looked like they were yielding a lot more fruit and more quickly than we’ve seen in years before. They were certainly full of blossom in the spring.

I don’t know how much in the way of nutrients that bay tree would have drawn each day — or how much water — but it had to have had some significant impact on the relative fertility of the surrounding soil, as a not inconsiderably dominant node in the immediate ecology. Or, maybe the boughs of the apple were inclined in earlier years to lean their increasing weight on their big brother bay as their crop ripened. Who knows?

But one day, three burly men, a couple of packets of Benny Hedgehogs, a chain saw and a Bobcat came along, and pretty soon the bay tree and its massive root-structure were gone. The apple trees breathed again –perhaps their deepest breaths in twenty years — and suddenly our vulnerable, once-dwarfed friend was the dominant plant in its neighbourhood.

Bay Tree Wall Removal 001

Flushed with its new-found confidence, and benefiting from a good combination of moisture and summer sun, what was to stop it growing the largest, most numerous apple stock in its entire life?

Apple Crunch removal

In part because of my paleo diet, I’ve somehow become a bit more obsessed with things growing. Equipped with a 5 mega-pixel camera-phone I have taken to excessively recording the growth of much garden flora and publishing it for the benefit of my sole Flickr photostream subscriber. This is micro-local, social media at its most extreme and is as far out into the long tail as you can go without disappearing. But I don’t want you to think that I’m lonely. Or that my one subscriber is; he has lots of “friends”. [By the way, I subscribe to his photostream too. He does hard urban, melancholic shots through rain-drenched bus windows; I do rural/leafy suburbia.] This has been going on a while now, of course. Some of you might even remember my so-called long apple harvest from last year.

Apple Crunch removal

So what’s the point? Well, while it is always true that one thing leads to another, and so this is a banal little story of ordinary, back-garden apple trees, I’ve taken recently to enjoying a cup of herbal tea mid-afternoon on the bench immediately beneath that now-departed branch in order to soak up some Vitamin D. With the wall below head-height, that makes me very lucky indeed. Of course, I’m not one to hoard my good fortune, nor my windfall of apples, so I want to share this pertinent piece of advice from the late, great Glenn Miller. As they say, if you know what’s good for you…

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gordonfreude

27Jun08

Tweet It’s been a year since Gordon Brown arrived in Number 10 Downing Street, uncontested. I don’t normally look to record anniversaries (apart from this and this, and maybe this), nor comment directly on politics. I wish politics were better, of course, and I think the political media must take a lot of responsibility for […]

Twitter showed its worth when @ryansholin announced (at least, it was news to me in landlocked Bath) that Maverick’s – the annual big wave surfing event in Santa Cruz, Northern California — was convening this past weekend. The organisers called it last minute on Friday. All the young dudes rushed in to catch the notoriously huge Pacific west-by-north-west swell on Saturday.

Ryan, who blogs on the changing face of journalism, works for used to work for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but recently moved to GateHouse Media, a large publisher of highly local print and online publications. Maverick’s is in his back yard. He pointed us to the Maverick’s website, where I spent enough time looking at 2006 wipeouts (see below) to end up with a headache. It didn’t take long.

Just in case you think I’m suffering from apostrophe failure, “Maverick’s” is short for “Maverick’s Point” — Maverick being a white-haired German Shepherd dog whose human surfing companion was reputedly one of the first to try the giant waves near Half Moon Bay back in the ’60s. The dog tried to swim out to join his surfing buddy, but the conditions were too treacherous and he had to be tied to the car bumper instead for his own safety.

Surfing heaven, sailing hell

I could not have cared less about surfing a few months ago. I’d seen crazy folks surfing mid-winter in Cornwall, desperately seeking even the tiniest waves in full wet-suits, while I stood (marginally less frozen and windswept) safely on shore. British surfing culture, such as I imagined it, left me cold; old surf-bum cliché mashed up with the with teenage surf fashion — who needed it?

It wasn’t that I didn’t have an affinity for the sea. I spent my twenties sailing a yacht most weekends and studying navigation on Tuesday evenings at night school in very non-coastal Parliament Hill, North London. I’m qualified as a Royal Yachting Association coastal skipper, hold the obligatory VHF radio operator’s licence, and can confirm that yachting in the home waters of the UK is indeed like standing in a cold shower tearing up £20 notes. Who needs that either, frankly?

Crucially, though, for a yachtsman, the place where land and sea meet when the wind is blowing onshore is a no-go area. The lea shore that is surfing heaven is the sailor’s total nightmare.

But last summer in Devon, my aversion to surfing changed. It was so wet on land in August that, having been rained on solidly in our camp site for several days, we thought we might just as well embrace our dampness and at least add the wind-protective qualities of neoprene. Courtesy of Loose-fit in Braunton (the world’s first carbon-neutral surf shop, they assure me), we invested in some state-of the-art suits and plunged into the foam at Saunton Sands, encouraged by the Loose-fit slogan: “Hang Loose in the Juice.” We were only on trashy bodyboards, purchased at the beach-side store, but it was surprisingly exhilarating. It transformed a holiday that would have otherwise been a washout.

Flush-through

As a non-scientist, what intrigues me about surfing and sailing, particularly when it comes to understanding and managing risk, is that they embrace and expand your knowledge of the non-linear. For instance, the Beaufort Scale for wind strength (which yachtsmen must learn to determine how much sail to carry, and what course to chart, and whether to go out at all) goes from 1 through to hurricane 12. But clearly a hurricane is not just twice as strong as Force 6; in fact, it’s at least three times the wind strength, and produces more than 4.5 times the wave size.

When I did a search of Art De Vany’s blog, as I’m wont to do when I want to understand something complex, it immediately threw up the insight that surfing is what de Vany describes as a “power law” activity. And that was what struck me when a large wave unexpectedly up-ended me (not for the last time), and I experienced the sensation that surfers call “flush-through” or “wash-thru”: when the ocean breaches the sea-defence that is your wet-suit’s collar and your nether regions get flooded with icy cold water, rendering you a human washing machine on a particularly vigorous rinse cycle.

Now, Ryan, at Invisible Inkling, talks a lot about the wave of change that is causing journalists and publishers to experience some of that metaphorical cullion-tightening wash-thru too. He urges journalists to re-skill, get blogging, Twittering and exploring social networks. Because newspaper circulations are falling, and revenue models that can guarantee the future of serious news-gathering are so far proving highly elusive.

Riding the wave

Putting these two things together reminded me of my own youthful Jeremiah pronouncements and specifically a now somewhat banal — but nonetheless prescient — observation I’d made in a meeting in 75 Wall Street way back in 1996, when I was London bureau chief for Knight-Ridder, and the idea of monopolising the Internets was just a twinkle in the young eyes of two 23-year-olds called Page and Brin.

I’d been summoned for meetings there with my fellow news managers to strategise the recovery of the Knight-Ridder international newswire that had spent several months passing through the uncertainty of an auction before being acquired from the Miami-based newspaper company (then still a thriving independent entity as one of the two largest publishers in the US) by venture capitalists.

I forget how many staff we lost precisely, but we were at least fully decimated. Fearful of acquisition by a competitor and enforced redundancy, so many had left seeking greater security, often with said competitors.

Private equity firm Welsh Carsen Anderson & Stowe, the firm that had bought us, had a bold strategy to overturn Reuters, Dow Jones-Telerate, and the emergent Bloomberg, and capitalize on a wave of financial market disintermediation by being the first company in the financial information industry to apply internet protocol. They acquired a bunch of information companies, ripped out their proprietary networks and technologies, and introduced standards.

WCAS already owned what it claimed was the world’s largest private intranet, contested only at that time by Hewlett Packard. After buying us, WCAS tried to buy that doyenne of early internet adopters, Compuserve, too. They had the blessing of — and not a small amount of investment from — the world’s largest banks and pension funds. At one point Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong was our official spokesman. Continue reading ‘the maverick’s story’

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Tweet Living in Bath, with access to the Bath University Sports Training Village, it is easy to take for granted that as a private citizen you actually belong to a kind of sporting aristocracy. There are really no better sports facilities in the country. It’s new, it cost £23 million, and all sports are concentrated […]


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