The wonders of capitalism – or something

I don’t pretend to understand the food manufacturing business at all but this invention – “the first media technology that is put into the mouth” according to its promoters (at the SIGGRAPH 03 conference in San diego) – seems so unlikely and so unsavoury all at once that it must be a pretty good case study for the unending inventiveness of Japanese capitalism. From New Scientist.

Categorized as Business

Deflation – don’t sweat it…

Brad DeLong (who is, like, you know, the Dickens of economists or something – at least in terms of output – and, as far as I know, is also the only economist who links to this weblog so is obviously all right by me) has a reassuring, post-Moore’s Law take on the ‘deflation anxiety’ afflicting much of his profession – from Wired Magazine

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Brands have been wiped out for less

Nike is a big firm and golf is a teeny tiny part of its portfolio but the economic fallout from Tiger Woods’ decision to dump his custom-engineered Nike clubs in favour of some old ones he’s pretty sure are still in the loft somewhere (if his mum didn’t put them on ebay or something) could be immense.

Even if you only count the millions spent on the design, engineering and manufacture of the new line and ignore the huge potential damage to the brand from Woods’ now essentially useless endorsement (“You’ll be wanting a set of these clubs. They set my game back a year-and-a-half”) this is a big deal.

More amazing perhaps, is the sacrifice made by Woods in trying to make the endorsement work. According to The San Francisco Chronicle, his game has been kaput for the whole season – and he’s fallen to 24th in the rankings – as a direct result of his club trouble. It says a lot about the strange entanglement of mega-brands and sports stars that he should have given up the number 1 spot for the sake of the swoosh.

Categorized as Business

Holiday diversions, part 1

The letters Q and N plus an RAF roundel painted on the sillver, riveted side of an old RAF plane at the RAF museum in Hendon, England
Insignia on the side of an old RAF plane at the museum in Hendon

The Royal Airforce Museum at Hendon is a top day out with the kids – especially now that, like all national museums and galleries – it’s free. It’s a pretty sobering experience too – war is not glorified here (although the ejector seat display is pretty exciting).

The most striking thing is how flimsy these aeroplanes are – not just the stiffened linen and bent wood of the early warplanes but the dodgy looking riveted aluminium and steel of the modern fighters. I’m sure the pilots and engineers know better but some of these crates bring to mind nothing more solid than the creaking plywood holiday caravans of my youth – only with nuclear missiles hanging under them.

Nothing invulnerable about these machines – and nothing trivial about getting in one and setting out over enemy territory…

Biotech overload

Glenn Crocker in New Scientist says that too many biotech firms are started and too few allowed to go bust when it becomes evident that they’re not going to work. This unproductive layer of dodgy firms with poor products blocks the creation of the next generation of potentially more successful businesses by soaking up scarce resources.

Quite an interesting ecological angle on business creation. Crocker reckons that the solution is to give scientists development money to take their ideas further before they have to start a firm to exploit them. It’s certainly kinder than thinning out the forest of duds once they’re up and running.

No. I do not have a Nectar card

Rachel Shabi in The Guardian’s Saturday magazine has got herself all worked up about loyalty cards and RFID tags. She’s probably right to worry. In the advanced economies we’re consumers first, citizens second. We interact with retailers more than with any other institution. What they do with our data is important but they’re unaccountable and secretive.

Their increasingly privileged access to personal information implies a matching obligation to increase transparency and choice – they’ll need to behave a bit more like civic entities and offer the kind of guarantees we expect from them. The bargains we strike with retailers – coupons for data, for instance – will need to be more explicit, opt-outs easier, tracking chips properly labeled and removable, personal profiles accessible.

As an entrepreneur, of course, I see all this as an opportunity, not an obstacle to the unhindered operation of the free market. Since corporations cannot and should not expect to operate entirely without restraint, they should respect the ecology within which they live and develop commercial responses to a society’s constraints.

I wonder if there’s any mileage in third party ‘kill switches’ for RFID tags – a booth in the shopping mall where you can get your RFID tags switched off before they start broadcasting your movements and shopping habits? Would I pay 50p to neutralise all the tags in my shopping? No. Probably not.

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Berger on Palestine

John Berger is brilliant and infuriating: Bolshevik, poet, monk. The man who gave his Booker Prize money (for G) to the Black Panthers and radicalised a whole generation of art history students through the amazing Ways of Seeing has been a constant witness for the poor and marginalised, especially for peasants and migrants.

Never a Stalinist – always too close to the powerless – he avoided the ideological quagmire the left of his generation got stuck in. Lots of people will hate his LRB piece on Palestine (A Moment in Ramallah, London Review of Books, 24 July – doesn’t appear to be online yet) – not least for its classic Berger imagery – soaring and leaden, artful and artless, all at once – like I said: infuriating. But, if you know his work, it’s perfectly consistent with his unwavering identification with the dispossessed. Here’s some of that infuriating imagery:

“When it came to saying goodbye, the aunt held my hand, and in her eyes, there was the same special attention to the moment. If two people are laying a tablecloth on a table, they glance at one another to check the placing of the cloth. Imagine the table is the world and the cloth the lives of those we have to save. Such was the expression.”

A new role for Government: bullying the well-off

James Crabtree and Noah Curthoys from the Work Foundation’s iSociety research project have written a report about e-government targets.

They think the current goal of getting 100% of government services online by 2005 is silly and they’ve found some funny examples from the official literature to back up their assertion ndash; the seed potato classification scheme and burial at sea to name two.

Their analysis is on the money. Indiscriminately shovelling services onto the net is reductive and wasteful. It’s the e-gov equivalent of a really dumb marketing plan that attempts to sell everything to everyone – without bothering to segment the market, identify hot prospects or promote profitable top sellers.

I guess their most provocative proposal is that government should consider compelling some of their customers – the most well-off and ‘e-literate’ – to use online channels. They say that this group is less likely to use the web than the access figures suggest so poor and un-wired service users are effectively subsidising the lazy middle classes.

The press release doesn’t say where you can get the report but presumably it’ll be here. Click ‘more’ for the press release:

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Thinking ahead

At the House of Commons event the other day I ran into a futurist called Susan Clayton. I like futurists. They do important work reminding us to remember our descendants. We don’t (can’t?) think far enough into the future. Our horizons are miserable, collapsed, mean-spirited. Future generations don’t really get a look in – one or two electoral terms (half a generation!) is about as far as we can see.

Susan told me that some Government departments have people thinking as far as 80 years ahead – on climate change, for instance. Corporations are probably worse – accounting practice and abbreviated reporting periods keep things short-term.

We certainly have no useful tools for engaging with the far future – 100 years or more – even though doing so could be an effective way of extending our tenure of the planet and improving the lives of those that come after us.

Adapting existing investment instruments to time-shift capital into the future, for instance, would make use of the wonder of compound interest to massively amplify the impact of a small investment made in the present day – but the financial and legal framework for these very long term bets doesn’t exist. Ask your accountant to set up a trust to manage a thousand year investment… Go on.

Peter Schwartz, top futurist and grandaddy of the ‘scenario planning’ discipline (and Stewart Brand‘s partner in the influential GBN) was interviewed in Tuesday’s FT about his new book, Inevitable Surprises. Schwartz, despite his association with the disastrous idea of the ‘long boom‘, keeps the faith:

“Pervasive dense information is like cheap energy. One of the things that drove the 20th century was cheap energy – it expanded the wealth of society enormously. I think the same thing is going to happen relentlessly with information. We had a hiccup because the evolution of the infrastructure got out of phase.”

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Early retirement, Mr Kaufman?

You don’t have to be a Dykista (A Dykie?) to think that DCMS Select Committee Chairman Gerald Kaufman’s attack on the corporation yesterday was unprincipled, opportunistic – really a politically disreputable act. I can’t be the only one who’s getting fed up with Kaufman’s unreconstructed, Wilson-era Statism disguised as consumer advocacy or anti-establishment vim or whatever it is.

His latest soapbox is the extra-curricular activities of Messrs Marr, Gilligan, Simpson et al, which he thinks should be curtailed in the interests of balance, impartiality etc.

How stifling a group of the most intelligent, independent, high-minded journalists on the planet can aid accountability at the beeb is entirely beyond me. That these journos can sustain the BBC’s high (and rather unusual) editorial standards while writing grown-up opinion for other outlets is a testament to their quality, not their venality.

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