Monthly Archives: September 2004

Buy a t-shirt, help the UN’s Refugee Agency

A while ago I made a ‘No. I do not have a Nectar card’ t-shirt for those situations when you just can’t bring yourself to say it… again (for you foreigners, Nectar is a huge UK multi-vendor loyalty card scheme – they claim that one-third of the UK population has a card). You can buy a t-shirt at CafePress for $19.99 (plus delivery), which is practically bugger all (a bit more than a tenner, in fact), what with the favourable exchange rate and all that. The amazing thing is that, unaccountably, I seem to have sold a few lately and UNHCR is somewhat better off as a result. So, instead of sitting there clicking aimlessly (what are you doing exactly?), why don’t you buy one. All profits (a chunky $6 per shirt) go to UNHCR.

Classical music’s mess

Twenty years ago, when I started listening to classical music, things looked pretty good for the form. A small revival was under way – lots of gorgeous new music, influential movie soundtracks and superstar ensembles seemed to promise some kind of renaissance. The subsidised concert halls were full and radio deregulation promised a wave of new classical stations. Now, things are much gloomier.

Classical music is a basket case, in fact. The generation that was supposed to save it has moved on – either to revitalised ‘serious’ rock or to some point on the huge and groovy spectrum of dance music. Classical album sales have collapsed, the labels can’t fund the big budget recordings any more and even the major orchestras are struggling. A decade of wasted investment in witless crossover acts and overpaid has-beens hasn’t helped. Worst of all, no one knows what to do – there’s no evidence that the industry has a response up its sleeve – either to the disastrous loss of audience or to the promise of new technology.

Meanwhile, Radio 3 and a bunch of top orchestras have got together to make classical performance available to people who wouldn’t normally see it. Disabled people are invited to call 0800 033 033 and book a free performance from some of the best musicians in the land in their own home. Marvelous: a really brave initiative – but it got me thinking. What classical music needs, I think, is something bigger, something much more ambitious.

The subsidised ensembles ought to launch the biggest outreach programme in their history. It’s quite simple (and it’s really just the disabled scheme on a bigger scale): for a year, anyone who can promise an audience of more than, say, twenty, should be able to call a single number and book an orchestra, a chamber group, a choir or a soloist for a free performance anywhere. I’d like to see a year of frenetic activity from the musicians and administrators, composers and conductors – a really serious effort to convert thousands, tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of new listeners, a really serious effort to rescue classical music from the heartbreaking spiral of irrelevance it’s caught in now.

Speaking of classical outreach, every programme in Radio 3’s brilliant Discovering Music series is worth listening to and they have a proper archive.

And in other news…

Google has Bush to win. Fascinating (and very simple) statistical analysis – shows that you can use a very large body of continuously updated information from extremely diverse sources (like Google’s index of the web) to model… practically anything, including elections. Techies at Earthlink have built a nifty test application using SIP, which is a foundation technology for VOIP. This is cool because it shows that SIP could kick off a renaissance of interesting (and economically important), highly distributed and standards-based applications, which would be fun. Anti-Hummer sites are popping up all over the place. Here’s a funny one – and here’s the one I linked to the other day. They’ve found a Russian Space Shuttle in the dessert in Bahrain. Wow. (Thanks to Joi Ito, Things and Ivan for the links).

One thing at a time

Seth Godin links to Woot, a clever ecommerce site whose USP is the kind of gonzo experiment you can only really do online – one product per day. That’s it. Come midnight it’s history and they’re on to the next one (or earlier if they run out). Neat, but I guess it might become a kind of straightjacket like lots of high concept business ideas (although that doesn’t stop Pound Shops selling stuff that costs 9.99, I notice). The FAQ is particularly amusing:

“Will I receive customer support like I’m used to? No. Well not really. If you buy something you don?t end up liking or you have what marketing people call ?buyer’s remorse,? sell it on ebay. It’s likely you’ll make money doing this and save everyone a hassle. If the item doesn’t work, find out what you’re doing wrong. Yes, we know you think the item is bad, but it’s probably your fault. Google your problem, or come back to that product’s topic in our community and ask other people if they know. Try to call the manufacturer and ask if they know.”

The great glass elevator

A climber near the top of the space elevator
As usual, the space scientists leave me open-mouthed with wonder. Latest preposterous challenge: getting stuff into space is expensive – rockets and space-suits and beef stroganoff in a tube and all that – so why not forget the big bang and winch your satellite up a long cable ‘anchored’ 100,000 km up there in an orbit way beyond geo-stationary (that’s about three times the circumference of the earth so you’re going to have a pretty good view from the top of your cable). Groovy carbon nano-tubes are going to make this possible – there’s nothing strong enough to make that cable from yet.

Once the materials have been invented it’s just a matter of setting aside a few trillion dollars and a very large proportion of the earth’s energy budget to get the thing built and then to power the elevators up to orbit (no elevator could carry enough fuel for a 100,000 km climb and you can’t just plug it into the wall so you’ll have to power it from a laser or an energy beam down here on the surface). The elevator idea holds out the promise of twice-daily runs to any orbit you like (about a quarter of the way to the moon, in fact). Speed will be an issue – at walking pace it’s going to take you three years to get to the top – but if it’s really cheap, who cares?

A Burma veteran at Foyles

John Giddings, MBEJohn Giddings' medals
John Giddings was at Foyles the other day for an evening of poetry and literature from the war in Burma. I took his photograph in the coffee bar – you can’t sit and ignore a man with a row of medals like that! The one on the left is an MBE, by the way. Mr Giddings told me a lot of amazing stories from what seems like another age (click the small pics for bigger ones).

Anti-corporate sneakers

A Blackspot anti-corporate sneaker
Business baiting is back in fashion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in hassling corporations mercilessly until they meet their obligations – to societies, communities and economies – but I’d like to see some balance and maybe a less dogmatic appreciation of the benefits of the corporate model too.

Sure, if you eat nothing but McDonalds for a month you’re going to get ill (in my follow-up I’m going to eat nothing but lettuce, get malnutrition, win a Golden Bear and single-handedly bring down the evil salad cartel) but when was the last time your local macrobiotic cafe gave $5M to UNICEF to combat neonatal tetanus? Starbucks may be big and boring (I mean really boring) but how many microcredit loans to South American smallholders were underwritten by your favourite independent coffee shop last year?

There’s a serious point here: businesses like McDonalds, Nike, Starbucks are not islands. They are continually changed and deflected by outside forces, including shareholder and customer activism (a fruit Happy Meal?). In fact, businesses are better able to respond to these forces than almost any other institution. Businesses are good at change – it’s what they do best. The structure of the modern corporation organises resources and capital to produce maximum change (new sources of excess profit) while protecting income from long-term assets (property, ideas, people). A business is really a machine for holding in balance constant change and necessary stasis. Compare the rate of change at your bank or telephone company to that in, say, a Government department or a church or a charity, all of which have a much greater investment in staying the same than any business. Compare Nike now, after decades of pressure from the sweatshop campaigners (and now competing, anti-corporate sneakers), to the bad old Nike of lowest-cost production and child labour.

I’m not arguing for a more forgiving attitude to business – constant pressure from activists and Governments is a vital driver for this new kind of business, part of the contemporary consumer landscape – but I do want us to at least notice when businesses do good things for the environment, promote social change, support communities or improve the circumstances of their workers.

If we can celebrate the good companies as much as we condemn the backward, damaging and greedy behaviour of the bad ones, we might harness the immense potential for change that business embodies and, while we’re at it, trigger the kind of virtuous circle that produces more corporate responsibility and improves things for everyone.