November 22, 2013

Where now?

After just over one year of posting (on average) a blog entry each week (hitherto, via Tumblr), I have decided it is time to reassess the content and purpose of my blogging. Considering my life in IT and media/business, I was relatively late to blogging, being somewhat cynical of its purpose and relevance; but, since joining Medium, this has confirmed my original suspicions: I believe it’s time to try and write more of substance. Content that is original — not just blog about the same recurring topics.

Of course, therein lies the challenge: so many people blog about topics such as Facebook, Twitter, entrepreneurs/startups, economics, et al, because it’s so bloody easy. That’s not good. The corollary being that finding a different angle is not easy. That’s good.

Over the period of the past one year I have covered pretty much every topic that intrigues, enthuses or enrages me: politics, economics, social media, information technology, startups, venture capital, pop music, philosophy, anthropology, baking, nature, art, etc…

That’s enough, for now. It’s often been little more than cathartic; sometimes it’s been enlightening (for myself at least) by virtue of the research required for a given topic. It’s pretty much always been draining and often left me with a feeling of ‘OK, now what?’

I would spend hours finding suitable hyperlinks and quotations for most of my blog entries; at times I suspect this often compromised the objective of the writing. So, it’s time to reassess.

Blogging is often little more than a pyrrhic victory over a blank web page. Why do you think embedded-media is so popular within blogs? As with tabloid newspapers it pads-out the copy and painfully strives to give some substance to something which is by its nature pretty transient and vacuous.

However, at this juncture, I see little added-value in blogging further about topics already extensively covered by myself and many (many) others; especially when many of the views are the same, albeit with a slightly different lexicon. Life’s too short for repetition.

See you soon.

November 6, 2013

I was some 90 minutes into writing this week’s blog, as inspired by Grayson Perry and his wonderful 2013 Reith Lectures. However, Tumblr chose to not save my text when I attempted to save/create my first-draft post. Tumblr claimed (somewhat quaintly) that it could not connect to the internet, although all my other windows were connected, fine. Sigh.

So, this is the last time I shall do my primary writing via Tumblr; I shall simply cross-post to here from Medium, which appears to default to auto-saving one’s work. Ergo, this week’s blog is a very brief one. Normal service will be resumed next week.

One quote cited by Grayson Perry during this lecture really resonated, and the implications of what we could learn from the art world and should try to apply to life/business:

"Abundant production can only result in mediocrity." ~ Marcel Duchamp.

Anyway, I highly recommend you listen to these lectures, especially the last in the series, I Found Myself in the Art World.

Please find the time to listen to it: there is much to learn therein, whilst also being funny and inspirational.

October 29, 2013
Bon Appétit.

My recent work as a plongeur is teaching me many things: fundamental principles and practices that should apply to any area of life/business, but are often forgotten.

"He was a bold man that first ate an oyster." ~ Jonathan Swift.

Regardless of whether I am sweeping/mopping the kitchen floor, sorting cutlery, washing crockery or the profusion of utensils used in a busy fine-dining restaurant kitchen, I try to always be aware of the connection between what I am doing (no matter how humble the task in hand) and the desired outcome of the team’s endeavours: presenting fine food to the customers. This same ethos is clear in all the others I work with - from waitress to chef.

"Find what’s hot, find what’s just opened and then look for the worst review of the week. There is so much to learn from watching a restaurant getting absolutely panned and having a bad experience. Go and see it for yourself." ~ Gordon Ramsay.

Although I have only been doing this work part-time for a few weeks, I have learnt a great deal and shall always try and remember - and apply - what it has taught/reminded me, in whatever I am doing.

The flow of the process (the creation of a fine meal/experience) is intense and fascinating; at peak service the synchronicity of the different elements is seamless and, initially, overwhelming. From food-preparation to the cleaning the kitchen at the end of service, the camaraderie within all members of the team is genuine. Thus, the ‘product’ we create and deliver, together, is one of the very best around.

"We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine-gun." ~ George Orwell.

So often in business there is a detachment between the elements we are working on as individuals and the overall outcome; maybe it is the physicality of what I am currently involved with that makes teamwork a more tangible and rewarding thing: it’s a visceral experience and often quite exhausting - but, in a strange way, hugely rewarding. If we could somehow replicate this and apply it to whatever our endeavours may be, the results would be outstanding. Just because your work may be more inclined to the cerebral it should none the less also stimulate you in a visceral sense; otherwise, at best, the outcome will be average. In a kitchen/restaurant if anyone worked with a silo-mentality, they wouldn’t last one service. QED.

“The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I.” And that’s not because they have trained themselves not to say “I.” They don’t think “I.” They think “we”; they think “team.” They understand their job to be to make the team function. They accept responsibility and don’t sidestep it, but “we” gets the credit. This is what creates trust, what enables you to get the task done.” ~ Peter Drucker.

In essence, what I am trying to say is we should never underestimate any role/task in an organisation - and, if we are self-employed (or, as is more commonly referred to as being an ‘entrepreneur’ nowadays) we should always remember every step of any process is absolutely key, and dictates the overall outcome. When you are next sat at a table in a fine restaurant, reflect for a moment just how your meal got there: the process behind it was remarkably complex - and passionate. If you understand that I bet you will enjoy (and appreciate) the meal a lot more.

Can we say the same of the product or service we are involved with on a day-to-day basis? If not, we should.

October 22, 2013

Just by chance I happened to notice that Gregory’s Girl was on TV late the other night. Of course, this is a film I have seen many times before, and have the DVD gathering dust somewhere in the house, but, when a much-loved film is on mainstream-TV there’s a special buzz in watching it live, knowing others are also; it’s a delight to occasionally dip into Twitter and ‘see’ other people, of all ages, loving the same film, as you are watching it (even if for the umpteenth time).

Like all great films, different nuances become apparent each time upon watching; as one gets older (not necessarily wiser), one sees things differently. And so it was with Gregory’s Girl upon this time of viewing; since the film is now (remarkably) over 30 years old (I remember its release and going to the cinema to see it - well, to see Clare Grogan, truth be told - as if it were yesterday) there have been plenty of opportunities to see it in a different perspective, as we grow older together…

"Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught." ~ Oscar Wilde.

This time I saw many of the same things as before: the surreal random appearances of the child dressed in the penguin outfit, wandering around the school corridors in a permanent state of confusion, repeatedly being ordered by rather brusque teachers which classroom he(?) should be heading to; the rather socially-awkward/nerdy PE teacher (PE teachers always were, back then); the aloof headmaster (brilliantly played by the underrated old-style comic-genius, Chic Murray); the painful attempts of Gregory’s peers in alluring their first girlfriends…

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being." ~ Oscar Wilde.

And then there is the happy-but-hapless eponymous Gregory himself: that’s the bit that I really saw in a different way upon this viewing.

"The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread." ~ Mother Teresa.

Gregory is (to others) drifting somewhat aimlessly through life; an endearing clown, who somehow stumbles in love with who we initially think to be the girl for him. Sure, his peers have desires for her but it’s pretty obvious that for the other clumsy pubescent boys it’s more a feeling of confused lust, with their nascent libidos in overdrive. With Gregory it is different: he’s in love (as an aside, who can forget, "Whatever ‘in love’ means"?).

"The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition." ~ Carl Sagan.

As the film develops we see that in fact this is only ever going to be an unrequited love (and in real-life there lies a fascinating story of the actress who plays Dorothy, Dee Hepburn), and Gregory faces the pain most of us have experienced at some stage of growing-up: seeking, finding and losing love; or what we think is love at the time. Whatever, it hurts. We don’t want Gregory to get hurt, but it seems inevitable, with his innocence and puppy-dog demeanour.

However, the path of true love is corrected when the girls co-ordinate Gregory’s ‘chance’ (well, after all, even serendipity sometimes needs a nudge) meeting with Clare Grogan’s character, Susan; we all breathe a sigh of relief, for within minutes it is clear this could be the blossoming of a true loving relationship: they are both as mad as a box of frogs and synch with their quirky outlook on life immediately. They dance the night away, in their own unique style. Gregory’s found what he needed, without seeking it. Maybe, just maybe, life can be that simple.

"For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love." ~ Carl Sagan.

Significantly, the film ends with Dorothy (who he/we thought to be his girl) running alone at night, solely focused on her fitness regime.

If you haven’t seen the film I hope these vignettes are not seen as spoilers; there is plenty I haven’t told you. I recommend you watch it: whatever country you live in (that’s me having delusions of my international blog-audience!); the language of love (and football) transcends most cultures.

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that." ~ Bill Shankly.

So (without wishing to state the bleeding obvious), here’s the serious part: What you’re obsessively in pursuit of may not necessarily be what you really need…

October 11, 2013
Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

My heart skipped a beat when my TV planner app finally confirmed the news I had been waiting for: Auf Wiedersehen, Pet was to be repeated on TV, starting from the very first episode. Joy.

"Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom." ~ Marcel Proust.

For me, this series is like a contemporary rendering of The Canterbury Tales. Along with The Sopranos it represents the pinnacle of TV drama.

"The greatest scholars are not usually the wisest people." ~ Geoffrey Chaucer.

So why, after so long (relatively; the first episode/series was aired in 1983) does it still resonate so strongly? Not just with myself, but with many other aficionados. As I recently explored in my blog post at the time of the passing-away of James Gandolfini, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet embodies many of the themes found in The Sopranos: camaraderie, loyalty, love, humour, secrecy, honour - and always with a sense of impending pathos (and/or bathos) as a motif. Whilst The Sopranos may have reflected the Zeitgeist of something rather more intangible (the hubris of the greed-is-good period, maybe?), Auf Wiedersehen, Pet perfectly captured the mood of Thatcherite Britain

"I’ve seen blokes like you come and go all the times I’ve worked in Germany. Never been out the UK before. Never eaten foreign food, never drank foreign beer. Fish out of water without the wife or the mother to lend a guiding hand. After a week they’ve lost their passports, they’ve got pissed, lost most of their money, and become ridiculously nationalistic for the country that can’t even bloody employ them in the first place!" ~ Dennis, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais).

Ironically, both such Zeitgeists are (once again) back with us, now. Which is pretty dispiriting for many, but may suggest there is some hope for a brilliant new TV drama-series, borne from our (latest) troubled-times.

"Love is… sitting in a hut carving names into a plank of wood, and not feeling stupid about it." ~ Wayne, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais).

Anyway, very few long-running TV dramas have managed to achieve this mix. Clearly, achieving the right alchemy of actors, writers, and subject takes far more than simply having a large cheque-book; just ponder for a moment how many TV shows/films have really had a profound impact on you? I bet it is less than five…

"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." ~ Albert Einstein.

And so it is in life/business: it takes more than money to create, experience and share something that matters.

"Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh." ~ George Bernard Shaw.

October 4, 2013

Late last night I was mulling over updating my CV (again) and reviewing the years I have spent involved with the job-scheduling niche - nowadays more commonly referred to (in an attempt to jazz-up its perception, no doubt) as workflow/orchestration, etc. Although this sector of IT/business has been just one aspect of my career to date, it has been a recurring theme over the years. Often overlooked, as what it does is generally a rather dull/earnest (but essential) background process, I have always had a great deal of respect for it.

Which led to me Tweeting: Life needs Events: external/internal, good/bad; it doesn’t really matter … anything.

As with job-scheduling, our lives and business endeavours are governed by events - we are event-driven. Of course we like to think that by being proactive and dynamic we take control of our lives (in the past here I have explored, in my own limited way, fate/singularity) but in reality much of our life and the outcomes therein depends on events which are originally external to us, which become internal.

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." ~ Thomas A. Edison.

A job-scheduler (call me old-fashioned, but I prefer to use its original terminology when describing its function) typically co-ordinates many processes across diverse platforms and applications; often a process may do nothing more than be waiting for a database trigger or the arrival of a file by FTP and it then orchestrates a series of subsequent processes, spawned by the original event - these workflows can be incredibly complex, involving thousands of steps and dependencies. It’s fascinating to see a complex workflow visualised; the bigger-picture literally comes alive. It is agnostic to the details of the event (as long as it is valid) and the outcome; it just ensures the dependencies flow to lead to the desired outcome.

"Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning." ~ Albert Einstein.

Such is life: we need to learn to embrace both good and bad events and give them a chance to see where they may lead.

Tiny events, seemingly irrelevant (at the time), can lead to massive outcomes - both good and bad. Looking back across my own life/career, I can see where significant outcomes originated: months, years or decades later; often the source event was seemingly utterly detached from what would eventually be the outcome - it’s not until it is correlated and seen in a holistic sense we can look back in awe and bewilderment. I’m sure you will find many such instances also, when you review where you are in life at this time and ask why/how?

Reflecting on this particularly resonates with me at this time because I now find myself - after a couple of years of great frustration in business/work (as with many people) - working part-time as a plongeur (hey, if a bar-tender can be a barista, I can be a plongeur!).

OK, it’s not exactly how I saw my life/career developing at this stage of my life but it’s work; it provides our household with desperately needed additional income, no matter how nominal the minimum-wage it provides may be.

"There’ll always be serendipity involved in discovery." ~ Jeff Bezos.

Additionally, it’s exposing me to events. I’ve spent too long these past couple of years desperately trying to find/initiate a new business venture/work, to no avail; seeing myself as exclusively a technology/business entrepreneur, that was my focus. I suspect that many others also who find themselves in a similar situation and continue to live their past life online by immersing themselves into the worlds they know via (eg) social networks, so (vicariously) they believe they are still involved and before too long a new opportunity will present itself. Maybe it will…

I wouldn’t be too sure.

Anyway, I now find myself working bloody hard (physically), after years of exclusively cerebral challenges, in a very intense environment, for a relative pittance of a wage. Yet, I enjoy it: the people are wonderful and I am learning fascinating new things about teamwork and how people interact in a very stressful - and creative - environment.

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." ~ Albert Einstein.

So, I find myself wondering if this humble part-time job is an event I will look back upon in the months/years to come and suddenly see how it connects to where I am at that time in the future. The nuances of life often don’t make much sense; at a personal level let alone when one looks at the ills of society that surround us. We have become so conditioned to believe (to expect) we are masters of our own destiny when external events impact us we can feel confused and all too aware of our vulnerability, ultimately.

Who knows what events may unfold?

September 25, 2013
The Essence of Tong.

One of my favourite albums of all time is by the rather enigmatic British band, The Fall. Those of you not already familiar with them will probably feel that they appear/sound (assuming you’ve just followed that link to familiarise yourself with them) a highly dysfunctional ensemble; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth: even though there have been countless changes to the musicians who comprise the band, the founder and lead-singer/songwriter, Mark E Smith, ensures there is a continuity to the ethos of their music.

"They’re always different, they’re always the same." ~ John Peel.

Thus, decades on, The Fall continues to be cool. There’s no dependency on the yin/yang of Mick/Keith, Paul/John, Noel/Liam, Joe/Mick, John/Sid.

"Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste." ~ Charles Bukowski.

I decided to write a rather ‘lighter’ themed blog this week (largely upon the repeated prompting of my wife, who is concerned my blogs are a tad too nihilistic; as inspired by my favourite poets, I guess) so thought I should recourse to penning a few lines about music (for what jollier a topic is there but exploring the joys of music?) and what I find cool about certain bands/songs, trying to rationalise (ha!) what makes them cool?

"I can’t understand these chaps who go round American universities explaining how they write poems: It’s like going round explaining how you sleep with your wife." ~ Philip Larkin.

Obviously, this is an exercise in futility as a subjective topic to chase after: my cool is someone else’s crap, and vice-versa. Regardless, let’s (anyway) have a little look and see where it leads, eh?

"Joan of Arc had style. Jesus had style." ~ Charles Bukowski.

I’ve been lucky enough to see The Fall perform live on many occasions - from The Knitting Factory in NYC to The Picturedrome in Holmfirth. Each time the experience has been an assault on the senses because their music is not, truth be told, a pleasant experience; so, why listen to it? Because it is stimulating, visceral. It’s brutal, almost primitive at times, but always unflinchingly honest.

"Hubris is one of the great renewable resources." ~ P J O’Rourke.

A favourite song by The Fall rattles around in my brain most days: it’s an uncomfortable but infectious tune; a very heavy bass-line with the usual lyrical narrative reflecting Mark E Smith’s sense of ennui, intended or not. Anyway, here’s the song; I recommend setting your audio-system to 11 for the full-effect.

"Being in The Fall isn’t like being in another group. It isn’t a holiday. A lot of musicians are really hard to deal with. They aren’t as smart as me." ~ Mark E Smith.

After years of listening to it, it was only late last night (in preparation for my blog today) I decided to check if there is any online analysis of this song, and what (if anything) it means. With the wonders of the internet, of course there is: now, what really made me laugh upon reading this was the explanation behind (for me) the key line, below; those few words catalyse a whole vignette in my imagination, every time, but never remotely near the true - and rather mundane - definition.

"I was in the realm of the essence of Tong." ~ Mark E Smith, Dr Bucks’ Letter.

"Lyrically, the record covers a diverse number of themes. On "Dr Bucks’ Letter", thought to be a tribute to the American writer Charles Bukowski, lead singer Mark E. Smith appears to dispraise superficial materialist modernity, stating, "I was in the realm of the essence of Tong", an oblique reference to British DJ Pete Tong. In the song, Smith lists the five things that he, or rather, that Tong, can’t leave home without: sunglasses, music, palm pilot, mobile phone and Amex card." ~ Wikipedia.

Upon reading that I was immediately transported back to a rather nice hotel in Manchester a few years ago: it was breakfast time and my wife and I had noticed the couple of superficially cool-looking guys on the table next to ours were causing a bit of a stir with some of the other guests and waiting-staff. After a few minutes our breakfast arrived but my wife noticed there was no tomato ketchup on our table (I loathe the stuff; she loves it) so she leant over to the cool-guys table and, first having apologised for interrupting them, asked … if she could"please borrow their tomato ketchup?"

Which was definitely cool.

You could see their swelling egos deflate in milliseconds. For, it was none other than the legendary (ahem) club DJs Calvin Harris and Pete Tong, recovering with a full English fry-up breakfast after a heavy night of pumping-up-the-volume at some club in Manchester - so here they were expecting yet another fawning female fan requesting an autograph, whilst being gushingly told how great and cool they are. Oh dear; they clearly hadn’t met my wife before, especially in the context of breakfast

"Rather be dead than cool." ~ Kurt Cobain.

It’s why Bill Gates (and, of course, Steve Jobs was) is cool and Steve Ballmer and Larry Ellison aren’t, and never can be. Why Alex Turner is cool and Bono isn’t. Why Max Keiser is and Jamie Dimon never can be. Why Dick Costolo is and Mark Zuckerberg and Marissa Mayer never can be. This is not necessarily a problem in itself (ie, not being cool), unless one is seen to be desperately trying to be cool. Think of Ed Norton/Ben Affleck. You get the picture. I won’t even start on Justin Bieber, for fear of a teenage-girls-fatwa being issued against me…

Don’t believe the hype. The essence of cool - or not, as the case may be - hinges on how laboured and affected the desire to be cool is; whether in software, business, design, music, film, art, life: keep it simple, pure/honest, with your own certificate of provenance - and you/it will always be cool…

September 19, 2013
Waiting for Godot.

What are you waiting for? Who or what is your Godot?

Much of life has become so absurd it is tempting to become detached from what is happening - or rather, not happening - all around us. We see poverty (which in the lexicon of polity is better known as austerity measures) across much of Europe, as well as the continued wars and hardships across the rest of the world that we are somewhat less familiar with. CNN and the BBC are our tour guide in these far-flung corners of the globe: reporters, report; people, die; we, watch.

"I don’t know who Godot is. I don’t even know (above all don’t know) if he exists. And I don’t know if they believe in him or not – those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts, that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It’s not much, but it’s enough for me, by a wide margin. I’ll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it. But it must be possible … Estragon, Vladimir, Pozzo, Lucky, their time and their space, I was able to know them a little, but far from the need to understand. Maybe they owe you explanations. Let them supply it. Without me. They and I are through with each other.” ~ Samuel Beckett.

Meanwhile, glamorous CEOs of internet companies are lauded for spending billions of dollars on, erm, other software companies. The fact that they combine pleasing aesthetics with an impeccable education means they must be a genius. These are not polymaths, they are not even renaissance man or woman: they are the new gods. They feature in glamour-magazines as prominently as sycophantic technology/business journals. In a world where more and more people feel vulnerable, the new normal is to not question (thankfully, some are independent-minded and brave enough to), but to fawn over whoever is in vogue.

"Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time." ~ Albert Camus.

Stock-markets continue to soar by virtue of virtual money being printed at an ever-increasing rate to appease the millionaires and billionaires on Wall St/et al and their virtual sets of values, whilst more and more people claim food-stamps. The increase in house-prices is celebrated as a sure sign of a resurgent economy. All is well. Just ignore all those empty shops and office blocks; after all, we’re building more new skyscrapers so how can there be a problem? Don’t worry yourself with those being taxed if they have the temerity to have a spare room in their house. That’s other people, not you. Incidentally, that spectacular new skyscraper is for other people, also: Not You.

"If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever." ~ George Orwell.

Politicians continue to lie, to serve the bankers, to seek distraction in the banality of war. Economists continue to present their latest spreadsheet and graph as the truth, redacted. Society and lives become percentages; nothing more…

"Truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It starts to seem perfectly normal that your Twitter-stream is consumed by talk of iOS7 and GTA5; people are more passionate about a phone’s operating-system and a game depicting (ironically, of course; so that’s clever and OK) the underbelly of life as if we didn’t see enough of it in day-to-day reality. We wouldn’t dream of queuing for a loaf of bread or bag of rice (that’s for those third-world losers) but we will happily queue for our digital per diem and then talk on Twitter about what martyrs we are.

"You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that." ~ Samuel Beckett.

VCs continue to throw millions of dollars at vague software startups that usually don’t really offer anything in the way of new ideas. Building a better mousetrap is no longer a pejorative term; it’s entrepreneurial. As long as it’s in Silicon Valley/New York; or a European parody of.

All around us - if we care to look - we see family and friends losing jobs, finding whatever work they can (if they’re lucky they might be able to join the growth-industry of the service-industries, serving the elite who demand to be served). Truth be told, we know that there’s infinitely more baristas than entrepreneurs, but that’s not a good headline: as a career (sic) it doesn’t pay anywhere near as well and also suggests a certain futility to one’s life. Of course, all baristas are just waiting for that next big opportunity, really. So, don’t despair. The government is printing more money to stimulate the economy, just for you. Your time will come: just wait. In the meantime, shift your butt and serve that banker his $6 latte and try to not think about how long it takes you to earn that $6, eh? Smile.

"So you think that money is the root of all evil. Have you ever asked what is the root of all money?" ~ Ayn Rand.

Elsewhere, a tiny spacecraft, after decades of travel to an unknown destination, fleeing its creator with a justified sense of urgency, leaves the solar system and the experts debate whether it has or hasn’t left anything; the magnificence of its journey and significance of its isolation is lost in the semantics of astrophysics: there’s no room left for humility, awe and speculating/discussing the meaning of it all.

"Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case the idea is quite staggering." ~ Arthur C Clarke.

We wait for something different - something inspirational and good - to happen. To kill the time inbetween we distract ourselves with the absurdity of it all. Sometimes, it’s funny and it helps to numb the pain.

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." ~ George Orwell.

And so, we wait…

September 11, 2013
Straighten Up and Fly Right.

I was recently shocked by my ignorance of the life and works of Buckminster Fuller. It was only because I came across the quote, below, that I decided to investigate him further…

"Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary—the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab." ~ Buckminster Fuller.

It will take me some time to fully assimilate the thoughts and works of this somewhat maverick genius but the trim-tab metaphor is alone worth a blog entry: How often do we see behemoth companies - let alone governments - drifting towards oblivion (or at best, irrelevance), having set their course, paying no regard to the iterative fine-tuning necessary to correct/maintain their course?

"Failure saves lives. In the airline industry, every time a plane crashes the probability of the next crash is lowered by that. The Titanic saved lives because we’re building bigger and bigger ships. So these people died, but we have effectively improved the safety of the system, and nothing failed in vain." ~ Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Contemporary jet-fighter aircraft are so highly-strung they cannot fly in a stable aerodynamic sense; to make them as agile as they need to be in combat situations they are implicitly unstable and it is only feasible that they fly in an apparently stable manner (which is the desired mode the majority of the time) because of the fly-by-wire systems managing and micro-adjusting the control-surfaces, thousands of time a second, in real-time. It would be impossible for a pilot - even at this level - to replicate this function.

This same scenario - intensity creating apparent stability - is in evidence every day with how the stock-markets function, being now largely driven by HFT-algobots because the natural forces of buy/sell no longer generate the dynamic/volatile qualities necessary for the markets to trade at a level that creates the desired price-patterns. Additionally, the removal of sentient processes enables profit-taking to be the sole focus. Like the jet-fighter, it’s a killing-machine: there’s no room for analysis and thoughtful actions.

"Never wait for trouble." ~ Chuck Yeager.

In such examples volatility is welcomed and in fact is absolutely necessary for the entities (being so detached from natural forces) to function, as desired.

When I was learning to fly, in my early lessons I would spend ages fighting the aircraft and its reactions to the airflow and turbulence we were flying through; I was making reactive and crude adjustments every second and the resulting flight was coarse and unstable. Eventually, my instructor got me to understand how if I correctly trimmed for the conditions I was flying in, one could relax and begin to actually plan ahead more, as opposed to always reacting, leaving no time for planning - let alone time to enjoy the experience. Small is good.

Of course in our contemporary business lexicon we now have pivot as a term (from humble Excel origins, typically, to now being yet another bonkers-business-zeitgeist-paradigm), used to describe how one can radically recalibrate one’s direction - as an individual or organisation. But, by definition, this implies a sudden and radical shift in focus; surely this is only warranted as an act of desperation, (usually too late) desperately attempting to avoid a worse-case scenario from unfolding?

"Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth." ~ Mike Tyson.

The Titanic was of course trying to pivot when the iceberg was sighted, too late: as a metaphor, the Titanic-pivot can be applied to many business scenarios: take your pick…

"Better a little which is well done, than a great deal imperfectly." ~ Plato.

In real-life we need to think more about how we can fine-tune our (personally, and as a business) progress; correcting our course with the occasional subtle nudge of the trim tab. Antifragile? If you wish. I prefer to think of it as being bulletproof.

"Don’t fight forces, use them." ~ Buckminster Fuller.

Unless, of course, you’d prefer the high-drama of a pivot?

September 2, 2013
Down and Out with Entrepreneurs and Startups.

George Orwell’s first full-length work, Down and Out in Paris and London is often overlooked in favour of his more surreal and dystopian masterpieces, Animal Farm and, of course, 1984.

This is ironic, especially in these economically/socially troubled times, for as a book its narrative better reflects the real-world challenges our society faces. By immersing himself in the ‘hidden worlds’ of kitchens (when in Paris) and vagrancy (when back in London), Orwell becomes qualified to write with empathy and understanding of the hardships many face in life: it’s not a patronising piece of prose from some academic in an ivory tower.

"At present I do not feel that I have seen more than the fringe of poverty. Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning." ~ George Orwell.

So, how is this related to the world or startups and entrepreneurs, you ask? I promise I am not going to start labouring some pretentious metaphor or analogy, but what concerns me is the level of pressure - and false expectations - being placed on those of us who are deemed to be ‘entrepreneurs’ and, if we’re lucky enough (sic) those who reach the stage of being a ‘startup’ - ie, we are no longer selling just ourselves: we have a business; a product.

The transition from entrepreneur to startup (and back again) can be pretty seamless: in my own case, my freelance consulting activities led me to developing an idea that became a business-plan for a Web2.0 service that meant my service could be scaled. Of course it wasn’t that simple and after a few years (idea, business plan, seeking VC funding, development, release) it crashed and burned anyway. Well, it died with an embarrassingly prolonged whimper rather than a dramatic Zynga-like implosion/pivot. During this whole timeframe many people praised me as being an ‘entrepreneur’ and being the founder of a web-startup that would be worth millions, one day. Obviously.

"Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." ~ Andy Warhol.

Fortunately, I never believed a word of it, because I soon became all too aware of how a startup can go awry unless you, the founder, have control of it. I never made a single penny/dime from several years of hard work, but I certainly accumulated a lot of debts and heartbreak. Ironically, money was never my motivator: I wanted to create something and what gave me my biggest kick was when we had an office and employed a few people, at the peak of the development cycle. I wanted to create a sustainable business, something real, that created jobs. I don’t say this from some grand stance of altruism; I expected some recompense when the startup became a successful business. Sadly, that never happened.

You live, you learn…

What concerns me is that we see too much of this cycle. We need to understand - and be more transparent about - the fact that being an entrepreneur typically means nothing more than you are a freelancer/consultant, selling your time - and being paid for it, if you’re lucky; additionally, your time is highly finite. Sure, if your skills are in particular demand at that time you can charge an accordingly higher rate, but this rarely lasts and periods of unpaid work dramatically reduce the real value of those weeks you were paid pretty well. But, we tell ourselves we are ‘entrepreneurs’ and it’s up to us to be at the vanguard of the new economy. I often feel I am U2's biggest fan; I've done so much pro bono work, over the years…

"There is only one boss. The customer. And he can fire everybody in the company from the chairman on down, simply by spending his money somewhere else." ~ Sam Walton.

Say you survive the entrepreneurial stage and you are now a ‘startup’ your superficial stock-value goes up even higher; strangers will tell you, 'Wow, just like Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, etc - they were all unprofitable startups just a couple of years ago - look at them now. You're going to be rich!'

"You don’t come into cooking to get rich." ~ Gordon Ramsay.

Of course, some do succeed, but the percentage that succeeds versus those that fail or limp-along in a zombie-like state of existence is minimal. Figures are anecdotal and speculated, for it’s hard to truly measure, but conservatively some 90% of startups will fail.

That’s pretty lousy odds, isn’t it?

Success is not always what it seems. When it is via the epiphany of some legacy CEO wishing to acquire a trendy new software company, or the delusional crazily-valued IPO of your company, sure, success in terms of billions of dollars being thrown about is evident. But, should I need to remind you, that’s not how it normally happens. And that is certainly not ‘success’.

"The pressure on young chefs today is far greater than ever before in terms of social skills, marketing skills, cooking skills, personality and, more importantly, delivering on the plate. So you need to be strong. Physically fit. So my chefs get weighed every time they come into the kitchen." Gordon Ramsay.

Think of a restaurant, think of a band. The people involved in both disciplines rely heavily on creativity, support, passion. Hard work. Success is a long, hard slog, and even then success may only mean you have a nice steady business: your restaurant is operating at 70% covers most evenings; your band is touring universities and clubs, earning some money along the way and growing virally via word—of-mouth. There’s a good chance you’ll get signed, sometime soon.

"I want to put a ding in the universe." ~ Steve Jobs.

It’s hard work, it’s iterative. You are always interacting with your audience; feedback is immediate and easy to assimilate: that meal was great/poor; that song was awesome/average. Iterate, iterate: teamwork.

Even if you don’t become ‘successful’, you’ll probably earn a decent living. This is good.

Twitter was a slow-burner, but from day one it had an audience, which steadily grew and grew. No hype. It was kept simple, it got itself to market quickly, even though it was relatively primitive and had a very limited demographic. No mater, Twitter learned. We all learned; it was an appetiser we grew familiar with; we wanted more. It was that obscure song from an unknown band that suggested they’d become big.

Contrast that with a typical contemporary web/mobile/media startup. Earnest, typically young, guys and girls, sweat away at code and design for thousands of hours; their leader (the founder/the investor/etc) has a vision that will make them all into millionaires - hell, if not, why bother? Locked away in a typically suitable ‘urban hub’ office-space, the company works away in relative isolation, other than looking at how their (successful) peers are doing and repeating the mantra, 'That will be us, soon'.

"Kitchens are hard environments and they form incredibly strong characters." ~ Gordon Ramsay.

No other industry will spend millions in isolation and have nothing to show for it apart from a room of Apple Macs, a rented office space, and a few good programmers. Oh, and an ‘idea’. Then, after 1-3 years of development, the stealth-releases and media-teases begin. Just like every other company in the industry does. The expectation is it has to be a jackpot; we have become so fixated with the crazily ‘valued’ acquisitions and IPOs that simply creating a sustainable business is no longer considered enough.

"The most frequently asked question I hear first-time entrepreneurs ask is, ‘How do I know when to launch my product?’ The answer, more often than not, should be: ‘Now!’" ~ Naveen Jain.

So, eventually, your product is released to the world and then there’s baffled amazement when nothing really happens. Our preferred lexicon has insulated us from commerce, leading us to finding comfort and support within semiotics and skeuomorphs that only further detach us from reality.

You’re not defined by being an entrepreneur, or a startup.

You’re a business.

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