Thursday, February 28, 2013

three clowns

Italy, famous for changing governments almost as frequently as Chelsea FC changes managers, went to the polls last weekend. In a time of economic decline, fiscal difficulty and precarity of employment, nearly half of the Italian electorate saw fit to give their vote to a controversial comedian and a convicted tax evader. The comedian is Beppe Grillo, hardly known outside Italy. The tax evader is Silvio Berlusconi, of global notoriety.

Exasperation about the success of this unlikely double-header could be felt in world stock markets, which tanked on Monday, and in comments by politicians, most blatantly by Peer Steinbrück, the leader of the German Social Democrats who is expected to run for chancellor later this year. A day before a dinner with the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who was in Germany on a state visit, Steinbrück professed to be "horrified that two clowns won the election".

Manifesting the party-political impartiality that his office demands, Napolitano promptly canceled the dinner. At the same time, and this is just an aside, he also demonstrated the fallacy of Wikileaks. Words of truth are rarely imperative in international politics or its shadowy backyard, diplomacy. You don't restrain a tyrant by calling him a bloody murderer, and you don't engage your partners in difficulty by mocking them. Steinbrück doesn't get this; he has shown his diplomatic ineptitude many times before and is just as much a clown for it as the two Italians.

On the other hand, I'm not sure the dinner was actually called off. Maybe after communicating his displeasure to the press, Napolitano was taken by Steinbrück to Il Casolare in Kreuzberg to have great pizza and converse, anonymously and without the burdens of office, on a topic of much agreement. The clown comments were nearly spot on, after all.

Grillo is a comedian in his day job who freelances as a black hole for the protest vote. Berlusconi is full of buffoonery as well, bunga bunga and Obama's tan and sexual harassment on camera. But for either one, clown is probably too weak a term. In the latest Spectator, Grillo is likened, rather luridly, to Mussolini. For Berlusconi anything short of locking him up is a dangerous trivialization not only of the menace he presents for Italy and Europe but also of his moral depravity and criminal energy.

Berlusconi is a catastrophe, and even though his political obituary was published the New Yorker two years ago he's back in the game. It is not clear who votes for him. My Italian friends, uncountable on two hands, groan with pain when his name is mentioned. His appeal is incompatible with clear thinking – or any thinking at all. His sexual incontinence might attract middle aged men with unfulfilled fantasies. But are they a sufficiently abundant demographic to decide national elections?

The Economist, to complete a triumvirate of magazines quoted for this post, has a proud history, going back to 2001, of abhorrence of Berlusconi, which is gleefully summarized in the slideshow of front covers below. Legendary is the wonderfully ambiguous tag line "The man who screwed an entire country".

Clearly there's no love lost between Berlusconi and the Economist. This week's issue does nothing to remedy that. From the cover grin "the clowns" that have now entered political parlance, annotated with pithy statements illustrating their perceived unfitness for the task of running and rescuing the economy. The accompanying leader paints a dire picture of the country's future.

While the cover is brilliant piece of media mockery (which doesn't acknowledge Steinbrück but can't possibly have arisen independently), I don't see the consequences with quite such pessimistic eyes. Things will turn out all right because they always do. And Italy will always be beautiful and delicious and lovely and sunny and warm.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

recorded music

The battle is fought; the winner has been declared. Like in a good kung-fu movie, the hero knocked out all adversaries, one after the other, without much discernible effort. Two weeks ago, HMV, the last major bricks-and-mortar music and DVD retailer folded. Zavvi had gone down four years earlier. Before that, others must have gone the same way, though I wasn't in the country to witness that.

The failure of HMV took no one by surprise. They'd been close to death for years. They even started their going-out-of-business sale a good week before actually going out of business, discounting most merchandise by 25%. It had little effect on customers. The store in Fulham, which I enter most times I take the tube from there, was as empty as always and rather depressing, people moping about without desire or anticipation in their eyes, when I stopped there one recent afternoon (buying a Ben Harper CD and a Jack Johnson live compilation) when HMV was still just sick.

Then it died. A week later, after the announcement of the closure of 60 stores, among them the little Fulham outlet, the atmosphere couldn't have been much different. The store was thronged with people eager to grab a deal. The prices were the same as before. Everywhere were the same stickers of blue crosses signifying the same 25% off, but now people were buying as if they couldn't get a better deal anywhere else. The shelves were half-empty and the tills ringing. It was an absurd sight.

But nostalgia is a powerful emotion and it succeeds where even the craftiest marketing fails. When I went to Walthamstow for my first night at the dogs in 2008, it was on the last Saturday of the racing track's existence. It was like a Premier League game, people streaming towards the venue from all around. I had no idea how to get from the tube station to the stadium and no problem at all finding it. I just followed the crowds.

Later on the news one could see baffled punters wondering why the track would be shut down at all, why greedy owners were selling out to equally greedy developer. The owners didn't get much airtime, though I could imagine their response: If people had come like this in the past, no one would talk about closing shop. But with fewer visitor in the month running up to the last Saturday than on that one day, carrying on was simply not viable.

Carrying on wasn't viable for HMV either. People came to their wake in droves – to say farewell to a seemingly permanent presence on the high street and to remember the days when they were young and record stores cool – but they hadn't been nearly as enthusiastic about their media shopping during the preceding decade. HMV sold cheaper and cheaper, and less and less. Money kept flowing online.

The kung-fu master, anonymous so far in this story but known to all, doesn't need an introduction. The vast majority of books – electronic and printed on paper – CDs and DVDs are sold by Amazon these days. But not only this. The former online bookseller has morphed over the years into a veritable emporium, stocking electronic goods large and small, clothes, jewelry, games and toys, all sorts of other odds and ends, almost anything you can think of besides cars, houses and vacations.

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Amazon. Never mind possible just-in-time price adjustments based on the user's purchasing history or perceived purchasing power – there is suspicion that Apple users are shown higher prices for the same goods than Linux and PC users – Amazon is consistently good value. Sales, and with it the danger of overpaying when no sale is on, don't confuse the picture. Orders are always filled quickly and reliably, and when something goes wrong, it is rectified with grace. When the wrong DVD was dispatched to friends of mine in Italy, a replacement was shipped free of charge on my word only.

With every competitor they've driven from the high street or conquered online, Amazon's footprint has increased. The shopping experience has grown commensurately richer, a one-click convenience seemingly second to none. But something sinister has been growing along with the company and has recently broken out like pimples on a teenager's face.

Exhibit A: Tax optimization. I love taxes. The raised money lays the foundations for a civilized society, paying for roads and public transport, education, hospitals, police, museums and parks, symphony orchestras and the repatriation of illegal immigrants (this last item included in the list to defuse claims that I'm a deluded socialist). Companies, the point of their existence being the maximization of their owners' profits, like to keep tax payments low by minimizing, avoiding and evading liabilities. The bigger a company, the more resources are available to this dodgy end.

Amazon has devoted substantial resources to complex transfers of revenue. Sales per country in Europe are obfuscated and not taxed directly, and payments are handled in low-tax Luxembourg. In an inverted financial version of the horsemeat scandal where a retailer sources beef from a supplier in Cyprus who in turn gets his stuff from the Netherlands from a company that in turn imported it from France where it arrived from Romania, Amazon is channeling revenue and profit to where it is cheapest. In this way, a lot of money is spend with the purpose of retaining a lot of money, by obscuring communication channels and obfuscating detail. What works for meat packers works for media packers just the same, and the public loses out.

Exhibit B: Precarious jobs. To accelerate deliveries, Amazon has started renting enormous warehouses in strategically chosen out-of-the-way locations all over the country. One such warehouse and the surrounding economic environment, in the former coal mining town of Rugeley, Staffordshire, was recently described in a FT Magazine article. The council was initially very happy about jobs coming back to the town and the prosperity they imagined returning with it.

It didn't quite work out that way. Most jobs are agency jobs, paid near the minimum wage and created one day and shed the next, depending on the season and the flow of business. That's how it is, I guess. Even Waterstone's hires temps to cope with the Christmas rush, but I get a bit annoyed about how the numbers are presented.

The weapon of choice for every embattled enterprise is the number of jobs it secures, the money it puts into the local economic indirectly. This is how polluters win over residents. According to the FT Magazine article, which I can't be bothered to fact-check, an Amazon told a parliamentary committee last year that the company employed about 15,000 people in the UK. This sounds impressive, even if you subtract the number of jobs lost at HMV, Zavvi, Jacobs, Jessops, etc, until you cut through the PR crap. In October, an Amazon press release paraded the employment of 10,000 seasonal workers. In the company accounts, you find an average of 3,023 employees, but of course this doesn't sound nearly as good in front of parliament.

Recently, disturbing news has come out of Germany about a security firm of hard-right persuasion that was subcontracted to keep tabs on temporary workers housed in temporary accommodation. There was more than just a tinge of forced labor and harassment to the story. Granted, you can choose not to work for Amazon, but those that do tend not to have many options, and Amazon ought to treat them decently.

All in all, it seems as if the paint were flaking off the shiny internet giant in a bad way. It's still profitable beyond all competition and great with customer service. The number of different CDs and books on its shelves is staggering, but its reputation has taken a hit. Maybe HMV is going down at exactly the time when it becomes evident that Amazon needs a strong competitor so that customers can vote with their wallets on how business should be conducted.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

power cut

A few years back, my water supply was cut off, whether maliciously or by accident I never found out. The result was a minor inconvenience, a renewed appreciation of the incredible comfort that running water is, and awe for the water supplier who sent an emergency response unit out in the middle of the night that fixed the problem within minutes.

Tonight, my power was cut, a potentially more severe disruption. I was sitting at my desk preparing an application for a job that sounds rather exciting when three things happened at once (and the fact that only three things happened shows you what a simple life I lead). The lights went out in the living room, the computer switched to battery power, and the internet went blank.

I continued typing mechanically for a few minutes, while my brain was trying to formulate a response. My thoughts went towards potential sources of light to penetrate the darkness around me. I have plenty of candles but had run my supply of matches down to zero around Christmas and never restocked. My stove auto-ignites but relies on electricity for that. I don't have a lighter. Candles, always good in an emergency, were useless for me.

Somewhere among my stuff is a headlamp that helped me get to, and especially back home from, work safely when I was still riding my bike. I had no idea where to locate it. I don't have a flashlight. The little keychain LED I had once got at a careers fair broke a while ago. The only working source of light was the screen of my laptop. I maxed out its brightness, pointed it away from me, and checked out my flat.

The bread maker had cut out. I don't think the bread was quite done, but I took it out anyway. Couldn't have been more than ten minutes left. I guess I'll find out tomorrow for breakfast. The little screen looked blown, as if the machine had suffered a surge and taken out the circuit. It was getting old, but was it the culprit? All my fuses were dead.

Was it a power cut or loss of power in my flat? My neighbors' windows were dark, but through the gap under my door fell light, and the buildings opposite were lit. I got out on the street to investigate.

Two UK Power Networks vans, their hazard lights flashing, were parked outside my house. A bit further down the street, an electricity manhole cover had been lifted. Two people dug around inside it, their work made possible by a noisily roaring generator. Another guy stood nearby. He came over when he saw me.

"What's going on?" I asked.

"Someone poked around the network and disrupted a switch", he replied. "We had to cut the power to fix it. It won't be more than an hour."

"Is this an emergency?" I asked, trying to veil my criticism in understanding. "I didn't get a note about the cut."

He wouldn't be drawn into a discussion but his response was as clear as it could be. "We had to wait for the businesses to close. We couldn't start before ten. It's gonna be one hour, literally one hour."

They should have notified residents if they knew there was a problem, but there was no need to get worked up. I went back to my flat not just not angry but actually happy that (1) the problem would (in all likelihood) be fixed without my having to do anything, (2) I live in a city where infrastructure work can't be done before ten because it would be too disruptive, and (3) my landlord apparently takes safety seriously, installing battery-powered lighting in the hallways and on the stairs.

The happy ending to this little post is that the power came back before I was done writing. The light came on, the router clicked into gear and the fridge started humming. I still don't know where my headlamp went but I've now added matches to the top of my shopping list.


It is an indicator of how dramatically the time available for my leisure has contracted – though not the topic of this post – that I still haven't finished reading the New Yorker I bought when the year was less than a fortnight old. It had a lady in a green fur on the cover and in it the usual mix of miscellany and eclectica, nothing that would immediately catch my attention but which would, with rare certainty in an unstable world, entertain me.

Browsing through it in the newsagent before making my way to Kensington High St. for the workweek-ending coffee, I noticed an article with illustrations of a rather unusual kind. Besides the characteristic cartoons that are scattered throughout each issue, photos or topical drawings often anchor an article in the reader's perception. The one I had in front of me was different. It contained seven diagrams of maps in various states of abstraction, labeled Fig. 1 through 7 in the style of scientific communications.

The essay was called Structure and had to do with writing. I was intrigued because I'm suffering from an inability to resolve a paradox: On the one hand, I'm a very structured person. I love and need structure. My work revolves around determining (protein) structures. To make sense of the world around me, I try to put it into a structure I can understand. This comes naturally to me.

On the other hand, when I write, the anticipated structure of the final product is no guidance. For this blog, most of the time I sit down with only a vague idea of what I want to write about. Random thoughts cross my mind. If I'm lucky, they transmogrify into sentences. Over time, fragments of paragraphs fill the screen, an expanse of incoherence. In a laborious process that always takes much longer than it should, I expand and rearrange the bits until they finally coalesce into something I can accept onto my blog. While I'm frequently happy with the results, especially later when rereading triggers memories whose existence I had forgotten, I'm not at all happy with the process, which seems haphazard and wasteful.

Longer pieces, like those that end up on my website, are created differently and sometimes benefit from a more structured approach. I might, especially for the write-up of a trip, start with a list of encounters to relate and places to describe. I might know what I want to write about. That's in the nature of the subject. But the process of writing still occurs by trial and error, and I have no idea of how to streamline.

The article, by John McPhee, a veteran staff writer (a.k.a. freelancer) of the magazine, doesn't exactly dispense magic. It takes a structured approach for granted and then to the next level. The seven accompanying sketches outline seven increasingly non-linear ways of telling a story, illustrating a quest to get as far away from chronology as possible in something as inherently chronological as a journey. I grew more fascinated by the page.

It's very easy to describe a journey linearly. The result is oftentimes very boring to read and rather unnecessary. The order of events in a journey doesn't have much to do with the understanding of a place that the final written piece should reflect. There's two ways of achieving a coherent narrative: Bruce Chatwin was a great master of modifying reality to match his artistic vision, single-handedly creating the genre of fictionalized travel writing. John McPhee has a different approach. He struggles hard to creatively structure the material he has collected to achieve the perfect fit with what he wants to express. Where to start is the crucial question, followed by where to go next, and the simplified maps that accompanied the article were examples of his answers. They showed merging strands, a spiral and a chaotic back and forth.

How would that look in practice? As it happened, only two months ago did I finish Best American Travel Writing 2005, which contained Tight-Assed River, a window into life and work on a river barge on the Illinois. I struggled reading this. There seemed to be no forward and no back, no today and no tomorrow. The barge would travel up the river one moment and down the next. I was confused and couldn't make sense of what was going on.

Turns out that the materialization of Tight-Assed River is described in great detail in the New Yorker article I've now finished, though I made the connection only very late. Figure 7 shows the barges as little arrows, red going upriver, green going down. John McPhee is mighty proud of his concoction – and it got him into a prestigious anthology – recalling the realization that there would be "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end", the journey an "endless yo-yo" where "a chronological structure would be misleading".

For me, it doesn't work. The non-linearity feels deliberately obfuscating. But that doesn't mean that structured writing isn't for me. I can see little drawings and outlines as being rather helpful, as long as they structure they represent isn't madly unorthodox. Prerequisite for this to work is obviously that the material is already there, in neat little topical piles, ready to be organized along the structure. I won't have the chance to put this into practice anytime soon. There's simply not enough spare time in my life in the moment.

For those interested in a less-mangled but still far-from-linear narrative by John McPhee, A Fleet of One, a ride-share on a hazmat tanker across the US, is available for free at the New Yorker.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

la musique

With tea and a few of the good Marks & Spencer cookies and Vieux Farka Touré on the stereo at full blast, I sat down to ponder the state of the world this afternoon. I haven't done that in a while, but recent events have put me back in the mood. The French, formerly known as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, sent a handful of soldiers down to Mali, and look what happened.

The troops, by all accounts inexperienced owing to their country's persistent refusal to participate in various invasions until very recently, drove into the contested north faster than you can say the name of their destination, encountering virtually no opposition on the way. In Timbuktu, there was no information minister insisting in daily press conferences that the invaders were committing suicide by the hundreds at the city's gates. There weren't all that many days for press conferences anyway.

The French hadn't come as liberators or to win the hearts and minds of the Malian people. They wanted to (1) suppress an aggregation of devil worshipers suffering from delusions of both purpose and popularity but with the powers of convictions that come with the possession of large amounts of heavy weaponry and (2) secure uninterruptible supplies of fine dessert uranium, essential for the express trains between Paris and Marseille and anything else that runs on electricity in France.

It's fair to say that the average North Malian isn't much concerned about uranium, but without it the first military objective wouldn't have found the same urgency that it had in Timbuktu where drinks were forbidden, hair had to be hidden and music was punishable by death. As it happened – and luck doesn't strike often in this way – the interests of a majority of the local population were aligned with French geopolitical considerations. There was cheering in the streets when the French arrived.

It sounds absolutely hilarious if presented like this, but it's not that simple. The first weeks of the Americans' sojourn in Afghanistan and Iraq were also full of victories, exuberance and misplaced optimism. The French might suffer the same fate. The speed of their incursion into the north was kept high by a near-universal lack of fighting. All the Libyan ordnance that the previous French invasion helped release and spread is still out there with deranged people, and the Tuareg's anger is still the same. Add to this the regular Malian army that couldn't do in a year what it took a few hundred French soldiers a week, and you know that the French aren't going home anytime soon.

From what I've read, and in spite of the evocative name, Timbuktu isn't much of a place. It's mostly dust and sand, whipped up by storms from the Sahara, disintegrating mud huts under a ferocious sun, thorny bushes and rawboned dogs. Timbuktu doesn't conform to the legends that surround its name, but at least the music is playing again.