Tuesday, June 30, 2009

UK MPs expenses

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past three or four months, you've heard about the UK Members of Parliament (MPs) expenses scandal. The statistics on the MPs expenditure for the 2007/2008 financial year are here. The total expenses for some 644 MPs were about £160 million, equivalent to roughly US$ 260 million. This works out to an average of approximately US$400,000 per MP per annum, all inclusive.

This is rather cheap if you ask me. Consider, by contrast, the cost of a single African politician. Taking some hypothetical but realistic figures: Let's say the politician is the president of an African country that produces 300,000 barrels of oil per day. And let's say the spot price of a barrel of oil is US$50 and that the production cost per barrel is US$20. That gives profits of US$9 million per day or US$3.285 billion per annum. Let's suppose, conservatively, that said politician takes 10% of these profits as his own. That's US$328.5 million per godfather per annum. Nice work if you can get it. Now, I hasten to add, that this scenario is not necessarily typical of 53 African nations, but it's certainly not unheard of.

The big lesson, of course, for African countries is how politicians in the UK are being held to account even for such "small" sums of money.

Update (9 July 2009): Perhaps not so farfetched after all...

Monday, June 29, 2009

Eight Year Old Questions

Over the weekend my eight year son asked me two questions:
  1. Why are clouds white?
  2. Why is the moon cold?

Update: After thinking about question (2) a little bit, I was puzzled and so after the initial post I went back and asked him "But how do you know the moon is cold?" "Because it's cold at night." Oh, ok, I get it: The hot sun "comes out" during the day and warms up the earth and the "cold" moon "comes out" during the night and cools it down. Interesting.

The Man in the Arena

This quote by Theodore Roosevelt is one of my favourites:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
The quote is taken from a speech delivered by Roosevelt almost a century ago at the Sorbonne in Paris. His theme was Citizenship in a Republic. Here's the quote in context:

Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that queer and cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twister pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or feigns to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes to second achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life's realities - all these are marks, not as the possessor would fain to think, of superiority but of weakness. They mark the men unfit to bear their part painfully in the stern strife of living, who seek, in the affection of contempt for the achievements of others, to hide from others and from themselves in their own weakness. The rôle is easy; there is none easier, save only the rôle of the man who sneers alike at both criticism and performance.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face in marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who "but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier."

--"Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Land of Green Ginger

I'm reading The Land of Green Ginger (1975) by Noel Langley to my sons at bedtime. (Langley, incidentally, also wrote the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz.) I've just finished Chapter 2, or as it called in the book "Chapter The Second: Which Explains How Abu Ali Began the Search for the Land of Green Ginger, and Introduces Us to the Wicked Prince Tintac Ping Foo". (Chapter 1 is entitled "Chapter The First: Which Explains How, When, and Where There Was Ever Any Problem in the First Place".)

Promising, yes? And judging by the first two chapters, I can report that The Land of Green Ginger more than delivers on this promise. It is a wonderful book with memorable characters and a great story. But its principal pleasure, for me, is its delightfully humorous prose. Permit me to show and not simply tell. Here is a small excerpt from Chapter The Second:
And even though he is the hero of this tale, Prince Abu Ali had his faults, gentle reader, and it now my painful duty to enumerate them.

He was too amiable; too good-natured; too kindly; too honest, and too fair-minded.

He was too considerate of other people's feelings.

He laughed too easily, and he was much too sympathetic.

He was deeply fond of both his parents.

He was never lazy, impudent, or ill-mannered.

He could never raise his voice in foolish rage, or be a tattle-tale behind your back.

He was, in fact, quite hopeless. Nobody in the Court could see any hope for him. They were sure he'd make a highly unsuccessful Emperor. They doubted whether he would even be able to make a good marriage; because any real Princess was bound to find him as dull as ditchwater.
That is worthy of the master of comic prose himself, P. G. Wodehouse.

I can already see that The Land of Green Ginger will be one of those books that I enjoy reading so much that I regret finishing it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Football, Footballing and the Meaning of Life

I suppose reading Fever Pitch (1992) by Nick Hornby should be de rigueur for any self-respecting Arsenal fan (De rigueur being particularly apropos given the enormous influence of the French manager and French players over the last 13 years). But I only got round to it this year and I've just finished reading it: It's a delightful, idiosyncratic, funny book and should be part of the intellectual furniture of any football fan. It's theme could be described as "Football as a mirror" (for life, living and much else), or more grandioslely, perhaps, as "Football, Footballing and the Meaning of Life".

There are hilarious bits on virtually every page of the book, but in keeping with the ongoing "Say No to Racism" campaign by FIFA I'll focus on a section entitled "Bananas". "Racism? Funny?" you say. Oh yes, funny in the way only all absurd ideas can be. So, back to "Bananas": On 15 August 1987, John Barnes, one of the most talented footballers of his and probably any generation, made his debut for Liverpool in a game against Arsenal at Highbury. Nick Hornby, aged 30 at the time, was in the stands. Before kick-off, Liverpool fans hurled bananas on to the pitch to welcome their new black player. In the interests of fairness, we should note that today John Barnes is one of the best-loved Liverpool players, affectionately known as "Digger" Barnes by Liverpool fans after a character from the 1980s soap opera Dallas. But here's the funniest bit of the "Bananas" section:
You can still, even now, occasionally hear idiots who jeer the black players on opposing teams. (One night I turned round angrily to confront an Arsenal fan making monkey noises at Manchester United's Paul Ince, and found I was abusing a blind man. A blind racist!)
It doesn't get any more absurd than that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The King is Dead, Long Live the King

Michael Jackson
(29 August 1958 – 25 June 2009)

This morning the world awoke to news of Michael Jackson's untimely death yesterday afternoon in Los Angeles. The news instantly became the lead story on all major online and offline news channels and platforms around the world. On many of these news forums, it became the only story. The Internet came under massive strain as millions tried to get the latest news, with many major websites experiencing significant slowdowns or outages. Let's be absolutely clear: this is not because of Michael Jackson's "eccentricity" or "notoriety". There are many other public (and private) figures of equal or greater eccentricity and notoriety whose deaths would not trigger such a tidal wave of reaction. No; it is because Michael Jackson was an unqualified genius, a word that is all too frequently used and all too rarely deserved. But Michael Jackson certainly deserved that description.

He was a mesmerising entertainer, vocalist, lyricist, composer, producer, actor, dancer, choreographer, writer, indeed an all-round artist. He defined and redefined various aspects of the entertainment and music industries. He had universal appeal, cutting across numerous geographical, cultural, racial and generational boundaries. (From my personal experience, I can confirm that he was and is hugely popular in Africa. In terms of cross-generational appeal: my eight year old son became an instant fan some years ago after watching a Michael Jackson video.) He was a legendary perfectionist, who wanted to work only with the best to produce the best. His vocal abilities were tremendous, and with the vocal range to boot: from the beautifully clear (You Are Not Alone), through the teasingly playful (The Girl is Mine), to the jarringly rough (Scream). There was no truer falsetto (Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough). And of course, we mustn't forget those Michael Jacksoneque vocal and lyrical flourishes: "Hee hee!"; "Whoo!"; "Aow!"; the stunted, tracheal "Umh!"; "Shamone!" (whatever that means); "Sha-la! Sha-linge!" (the part of the chorus of We Are The World which ended up on the editing room floor), and so forth. His powers of creativity and invention were boundless and perhaps, now, ironically, after his death, he will finally begin to be fully recognised for the supremely gifted artistic pioneer and innovator that he was. At the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards, which coincided with his 44th birthday, Michael Jackson was conferred with the Artist of the Millennium award by Britney Spears. He made a brief, emotional acceptance speech. It turned out that this was all done in error--there was no such award. But there should have been: Has there been a greater performing artist in the last 1000 years?

A small aside to further illustrate the man's genius which apparently extended even to technology: You remember the anti-gravity lean in the Smooth Criminal video? You know, the one where Michael Jackson and his dance crew lean forward to an impossibly acute angle without falling over? In the video, it was done with special harnesses, wires and magnets. But how were they to achieve the same effect for a live show without spoiling the illusion? Answer: Invent special anti-gravity shoes. Which is precisely what Michael Jackson did. He holds US patent 5255452 for a Method and means for creating anti-gravity illusion.

The lyrics of Gone Too Soon from the Dangerous album seem appropriate for the occasion:
"Gone Too Soon"

Like A Comet
Blazing 'Cross The Evening Sky
Gone Too Soon

Like A Rainbow
Fading In The Twinkling Of An Eye
Gone Too Soon

Shiny And Sparkly
And Splendidly Bright
Here One Day
Gone One Night

Like The Loss Of Sunlight
On A Cloudy Afternoon
Gone Too Soon

Like A Castle
Built Upon A Sandy Beach
Gone Too Soon

Like A Perfect Flower
That Is Just Beyond Your Reach
Gone Too Soon

Born To Amuse, To Inspire, To Delight
Here One Day
Gone One Night

Like A Sunset
Dying With The Rising Of The Moon
Gone Too Soon

Gone Too Soon
(Here's a YouTube video of Michael Jackson performing--note performing not singing!--"Gone Too Soon".)

The King is Dead, but his work will live on. Forever.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hope Springs Eternal

One mistake followed by one unstoppable free kick from the boot of Dani Alves in the 88th minute.

That, in the end, was what decided the Confederations Cup semi-final match between Brazil (ranked 5th in the world by FIFA) and South Africa (ranked 72nd) earlier this evening, Brazil winning 1-0.

South Africa put in a very creditable performance against Brazil, the best football team in the world in many people's eyes, regardless of the official rankings. The Brazilians never found their natural rhythm--the South Africans didn't let them. In particular, Kaka, the supremely gifted Brazilian playmaker with the elegant, balletic, almost languid style, had neither the space nor the time to display his prodigious gifts. Instead, it was the South African midfielders that dominated the game--Steven Pienaar ultimately collecting the Man of the Match award. His colleagues in the middle of the park, Teko Modise and Siphiwe Tshabalala, were full of guile and cunning. Unfortunately, South Africa was unable to convert their impressive possession and passing into goals. This was also a feature of their previous games in the tournament, particularly the game against New Zealand which they won 2-0, but in which they failed to convert numerous goal-scoring opportunities. South Africa will have to correct this shortcoming. It may be due to the fact that the South African coach, Joel Santana, has chosen to play with only one striker, Bernard Parker.

However, the positives far outweighed the negatives and South Africa can justifiably be proud of their performance.

The next match on Sunday afternoon provides another stiff test, this time against the No. 1 ranked team in the world, the current European champions, Spain. Should be interesting.

Ed, Edwin n Eddie

Interesting talks and interviews by Co-founder and President of Pixar Amimation Studios, Dr. Ed Catmull:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Bloemfontein Tea Party

This evening, in Bloemfontein, in the FIFA 2009 Confederations Cup: The USA beat Spain, the top-ranked team in the world, 2-0. The USA played a very tactical--and it has to be said a very effective--game. Spain, a team with oodles of talent, had a frustrating night and missed out on setting a new record for the longest unbeaten streak in world football (36 matches, for the record, if you'll excuse the pun).

All hopes in South Africa are that tomorrow evening, Bafana Bafana, the national football team, will achieve a similar result against the mighty Brazil.

According to the current FIFA rankings, the relative positions of the four semifinalists are as follows: Spain (1), Brazil (5), USA (14), South Africa (72).

Clearly, on the basis of these rankings, any feat of giant-killing that will happen in tomorrow's game will far outweigh the giant-killing feat that happened in today's game. But we live in hope.

Incidentally: It's winter this time of year in the Southern Hemisphere and Bloemfontein was freezing--literally, with temperatures around 0°C. All teams that will play here in the World Cup next year should beware--the weather will definitely be a factor.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Last(ing) Lecture

I never cease to be inspired by Randy Pausch, the late author of the best-selling book The Last Lecture. When Randy was asked if he had any heroes and why, he replied:

I have a picture of Jackie Robinson on my wall. It's there to remind me that when there's prejudice or hostility, the best way to address it is to do your job well.

I love that.

Although the concept of a "Last Lecture" is a longstanding tradition in American universities, I think it's fair to say that it will continue to be associated primarily with Randy Pausch for some time to come.

The title of Randy's lecture was Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.

I love that too.

The pdf transcript is here (248 KB).

The video is on Youtube:

Defining Success

Just a thought:
If you don't define what success for you means for yourself, someone else will.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mr. Ponzi comes to Africa

There's a very well kept secret about Africa and it's this: There are many wealthy people here, some of them fabulously wealthy. And where there is wealth, it is reasonable to expect, there will be stealth. And so it has proved to be. This week Noseweek, the monthly (ahem) South African investigative magazine, broke a story about a massive Ponzi scheme that's supposed to have fleeced hundreds of (mostly African) investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars. Yes, that's UNITED STATES dollars. Like I said, there are some fabulously wealthy people in this continent.

Now, admittedly, not all of these rich people have acquired their wealth through (how shall we put it?) conventional channels. Or at least, not through what passes for conventional channels in other parts of the world. Take the recently departed Omar Bongo, erstwhile President of Gabon. And that's erstwhile with a capital "WHILE", 42 years to be precise. 42 years! You can do a lot in 42 years and Bongo did a heck of a lot. For himself, that is. Politics being the original African Ponzi scheme, you see.

This week's Economist has an obituary of Omar Bongo. Entertaining and depressing in equal measure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pixar's Secret Sauce

Pixar Animation Studios has a long string of firsts to its name, including creating the world's first computer-animated feature film (Toy Story, released in 1995).

To date, Pixar has released ten feature films: Toy Story (1995), A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), Cars (2006), Ratatouille (2007), WALL•E (2008), and Up (2009). All but three, Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Up, are in the top 100 worldwide box office grossing movies of all time. The first two are in the top 200. As for the third, Up, well, it's still in cinemas as we speak and if Pixar's track record over the past decade is anything to go by, it will also end up in the top 100. Up has already scored another first: it became the first animated movie to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2009.

So, what's the secret of Pixar's success?

Well, it probably helps that George Lucas and Steve Jobs were intimately involved with the creation of Pixar, but this alone cannot explain the success story that Pixar has become over the last 30 years.

In an article entitled "How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity" published in the September 2008 issue (pages 64-72) of Harvard Business Review, Dr. Ed Catmull, Pixar's co-founder and President, reveals all. Catmull has been there from before the beginning--he was recruited by George Lucas from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), where he headed the Computer Graphics Lab (CGL), to start up the computer graphics division at Lucasfilm in 1979. In 1986, Steve Jobs bought the division for US$ 10 million and established it as an indepedent company called Pixar, with Catmull as co-founder and chief technical officer.

It's a fascinating article and worth reading in full, but here's my summary of Catmull's key insights on Pixar's principles and practices for managing creative companies:
  • It's primarily about good people, not good ideas. Good people are more important than good ideas.
  • The Nature of Collective Creativity:
  • In complex product development, like filmmaking, creativity involves many people from different disciplines working together to solve numerous problems. It is not a solo act.
  • Such a working environment requires a tolerance for risk (and possible failure), trust, respect, and a deep sense of community.
  • Set and maintain the highest standards of service and product quality.
  • Power to the Creatives:
  • Creative power and authority must reside with the creative team's leadership, i.e., the film's producer and the director.
  • A Peer Culture:
  • Create internal peer review panels and processes to provide unbiased, unvarnished input to the creative team's leaders, but ultimate power and authority must resides with those leaders. At Pixar, this elite peer group of producers and directors is called The brain trust.
  • The practice of working together as peers extends to all levels of Pixar, not just producers and directors. For example, daily reviews or dailies are a process for giving and receiving constant feedback in a positive way. People show work in an incomplete form to the whole creative team and everyone is encouraged to comment. The benefits are: (1) Once people overcome the embarrassment of showing work still in progress, they become more creative. (2) The leaders can communicate important points to the entire team at the same time. (3) People learn from and inspire each other. (4) It avoids wasted efforts. People's overwhelming desire to ensure their work is "good" before they show it to others increases the probability that their finished version won't be what the director wants.
  • Technology + Art = Magic:
  • Getting people in different disciplines to treat each other as peers is just as important as getting people within disciplines to do so. But it's much harder as a result of various barriers including: natural class structures (some functions consider themselves and are perceived by others as being more valued by the organisation); different languages spoken by different disciplines; physical distances between offices; etc. In creative businesses, all such barriers are impediments to producing great work.
  • Making constant change, or reinvention, the norm in the organisation and blending technology and art, leads to magical things happening.
  • "Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology"--John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Pixar Animation Studios
  • Operating Principle #1: Everyone must have the freedom to communicate with anyone.
  • Operating Principle #2: It must be safe for everyone to offer ideas.
  • Operating Principle #3: Stay close to innovations happening in the academic community.
  • Other barrier-breaking practices: (1) Pixar University--a collection of in-house courses open to anyone in the company and allows for training and cross-training of people. Reinforces mindset that everyone in the company is learning and it's fun to learn to learn together. (2) Pixar's building (Steve Job's brainchild) is structured to maximise inadvertent encounters and interactions. At the centre is a large atrium containing the cafeteria, meeting rooms, bathrooms, and mailboxes.
  • Staying on the Rails:
  • The history of the computer industry has many examples of companies that put together great people who produced great products and then, at the height of their powers, made stunningly bad decisions and faded into irrelevance.
  • Catmull vowed to ensure Pixar would not suffer this fate by inculcating a culture of introspection and self analysis, systematically fighting complacency and systematically uncovering problems in the midst of success.
  • The keys are: clear values; constant communication; routine postmortems; the regular injection of fresh blood, and strong leadership.
  • Effective postmortems. Nobody likes to do postmortems, left unchecked they will be gamed to avoid confronting the unpleasant. Simple techniques to avoid this include: (1) Regularly vary the way you do postmortems. (2) Ask each group to list the top five things they would do again and the top five things they wouldn't do--this balances positives and negatives. (3) Employ lots of data in the review, including activities and deliverables that can be quantified (e.g., rate at which things happen, how often something has to be reworked, whether a piece of work was completely finished when it was sent to another department or not, etc.) These data show things in a neutral way, which can stimulate discussion and challenges assumptions arising from personal impressions.
  • Fresh blood. There are two challenges associated with bringing in new people with fresh perspectives: the not-invented-here syndrome and the awe-of-the-institution syndrome. The former is less of an issue because of Pixar's open culture. The latter is a bigger challenge, especially getting young new hires to speak up. To try to remedy this, Catmull makes it a practice to speak at orientation sessions for new hires and to talk about the mistakes Pixar has made and the lessons it has learned. The purpose is to persuade them that the company haven't got it all figured out and that they want everyone to question why they're doing something that doesn't seem to make sense to them.
Catmull concludes:
For 20 years, I pursued a dream of making the first computer-animated film. To be honest, after that goal was realized - when we finished Toy Story - I was a bit lost. But then I realized the most exciting thing I had ever done was to create the unique environment that allowed that film to be made. My new goal became, with John [Lasseter], to build a studio that had the depth, robustness, and will to keep searching for the hard truths that preserve the confluence of forces necessary to create magic. In the two years since Pixar's merger with Disney, we've had the good fortune to expand the goal to include the revival of Disney Animation Studios. It has been extremely gratifying to see the principles and approaches we developed at Pixar transform this studio. But the ultimate test of whether John and I have achieved our goals is if Pixar and Disney are still producing animated films that touch world culture in a positive way long after we two, and our friends who founded and built Pixar with us, are gone.
Hear, hear.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mo Ibrahim on Aid

In the FT: Mo Ibrahim, the founder of Celtel, weighs in on the ferocious worldwide debate on the (in)effectiveness of aid to Africa sparked by Dambisa Moyo's recent book Dead Aid.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Gordon Brown: Not Drowning but Waving

Not Drowning but Waving. That's the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the UK's beleaguered Prime Minister. Here we have a man who should drown (figuratively, of course), but refuses to do so. It makes for painful and pitiful viewing.

The phrase is a play on the title and refrain of a poem by Stevie Smith, that she (yes, she) published in 1950s:

Not Waving but Drowning

Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he's dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.