Kombucha makes it to Middle England

KombuchaI was amazed to hear mention of kombucha on the August 31st edition of the long-running English radio soap The Archers. Two of the village women are in a competitive keifer (pronounced “kaa-fir” in an Ambridge burr apparently, not ‘kee-fer” as in the USA) making competition and a neighbor who’d been visiting farm stores in and around Boston (Mass) made a reference to the “fermented tea” he’d sampled Stateside.

I’ve long anticipated kombucha becoming popular in England, especially as it tastes rather like Scrumpy. Maybe mention on The Archers heralds the start of more general availability.

I’ve brewed my own ‘booch for over five years can heartily recommend it as a healthy option to all those pints of Shires they drink down at the Bull.

Queen for a day

Sex PistolsI enjoyed a wonderfully eclectic article by Douglas Coupland in the Weekend FT on the Queen.

Since I make no secret of my age, I’m proud to say my life has been almost exactly coterminus with that of her majesty’s reign (with only my first four days on the planet spent when her father was on the throne, albeit on his death bed).

Coupland muses on the strangeness of the word Queen: ‘seemingly engineered by Scrabble technicians to allow players to shed excess vowels while at the same time affording them a well-deserved buzz while they deploy the Q-tile they’ve been hording…’. He recalls a time when the Queen waved at him, and him alone. On the relationship between punk rock (God Save the Queen) and the monarchy in British culture. On the differences between transvestites and drag queens.

But it is a wonderfully inspiring thought experiment that caught my eye, which is worth quoting in full:

I have this theory that there exists another universe which is just like ours except in that universe, different people became famous than did in this one. Jodie Foster is a Denny’s waitress in Bakersfield. George Clooney repairs engines at an Airbus facility but is off for a month because of a bad back. And so on. If you visited that universe, you could bump into Jodie and George and then . . . well, what would you do, really? Ask for their autograph? They’d call the cops. Ask them if they ever thought of acting? Stalker. There’s really nothing you could do except stare like a twit with a faint smile while you creep them out. If you ever want to make the world seem more interesting, just assume that everybody you see is a movie star in some other dimension.

Sometimes, I’ll see 90-year-old ladies and wonder if they’re actually the Queen in some other universe. What would I say to one of these women? “Hello. You look very regal today.” Clueless. “Like some tea, Ma’am?” Freak. The truth is that there’d be nothing much you or I could say, aside from platitudes and pleasantries — and then we’d sigh and realise that that’s pretty much what it would be like meeting the real Queen in our own universe. But one has to admit She’s done a magnificent job of maintaining an aura of mystery armed only with a signature hand wave and a roster of secret handbag codes used in conjunction with her security staff.

This would be an interesting executive communications technique.

Imagine

Imagine, for a moment, a speech by a senior leader that asks the audience to assume everyone in the company is a top manager in some other dimension. Treating everyone in the organization with the deference afforded top management would undermine many cultural norms, perhaps for the better. It could, for instance, relieve CEOs of the dysfunctional behaviors Rod Thorn identifies (a lack of honest conversations, too much political game playing, silo thinking, lack of ownership and follow-through, and tolerating bad behaviors). It would certainly, if carried out literally, put meat on the bones of the rather tired assertion that front line employees are more important than the CEO (which is clearly why they earn 331 times less.)

It might lead to greater empathy for the burdens the powerful bear, and the challenges underlings face, and overcome limitations in left-brained thinking that Daniel Pink has identified.

It might also help to develop the speech as a vehicle for constructive fantasy (‘what if?’), which speechwriter Brian Jenner lists as one of the jobs of the speechwriter (‘to manipulate the steady going, because we’re in the business of reconstructing the world with ideas’).

It would certainly take people out of their comfort zone, and, as ethnomethodology teaches, help everyone in an organization understand what’s going on when people in meetings pander to the CEO’s sense of humor and are more willing to laugh along at his jokes than they are with people of lesser status.

Abbey Road

Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl,
But she doesn’t have a lot to say
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
But she changes from day to day

I want to tell her that I love her a lot
But I gotta get a bellyful of wine
Her Majesty’s a pretty nice girl
Someday I’m going to make her mine, oh yeah,
Someday I’m going to make her mine.
– The Beatles

A not so distant mirror

Donald j TrumpEleven years ago today I launched this blog with a posting about the cultural differences between England and America. Back then George Bush was President, Barack Obama was an ambitious Senator, Donald Trump was hosting Season 5 of The Apprentice, and Alistair Cooke would be broadcasting his Letter from America on the BBC for another eight years. It was on April 27, 1990 that Cooke made an offhand, but eerily prophetic, statement:

Throughout the 1980’s, the non-fiction lists were headed by the autobiographies of self-made men, by titans like Lee Iacocca, the phoenix of the automobile, by Donald Trump, the young, bouncy, blond tycoon whose aspirations to take over hotels, casinos, airlines, resorts, cities — why not the country? — appear to be boundless.
(Letter from America, 1946-2004, p. 339)

Cooke did not live to see the day.

Of the people, by the people

I wonder what that cultured Englishman, who was an outstanding observer of America throughout his career, would make of President Trump? No doubt he would have commented on Trump’s obvious eccentricities as a sui generis political phenomenon. He would also, I’m sure, have visited the red states to talk to some of the 63 million who voted for him. As the French philosopher said “In a democracy, the people get the government they deserve.” And the people have spoken, there’s a new sheriff in town.

What the millions wanted was a change. And change is what we’ve got. They expressed a forceful desire to ‘Make America Great Again’ (now a Twitter hashtag #MAGA). Trump reflects these desires. He mirrors them.

Mirror, mirror

I can remember back around the millennium being in the audience at an avant garde theatrical performance where a series of photographs were projected onscreen, accompanied by loud music. Meanwhile, elegantly dressed young women walked around in the audience holding large mirrors that reflected us, watching the screen, back to ourselves. When a woman happened to stand both behind and in front, then , like in the barbers chair, an infinite series of images of the audience cascaded around us, simultaneously distracting from, and supplementing, the images on the screen we were reacting to. The light from the mirrors illuminated the audience, brighter than the screen was illuminated by the projector. We reacted to reflections of the reality we’d come to see. Watching ourselves watching. Like Narcissus at the pond, we were entranced by our own reflection.

Just so, Trump has taken the image voters have of themselves — channeling their anger and frustration with established politicians — and superimposed it onto the political process. He has ridden their waves of their frustration from the Rust Belt to the Beltway. And he has illuminated politics with the re-tweets of his 20 million Twitter followers.

Trump Tweet

He assumes the voice of ‘the people’, claiming to speak for them, as only a billionaire on his third marriage can.

He reflects the Americans who are about to get the President they deserve. His supporters are illuminated and emboldened by the reflected glory of his success.

As time goes by, following his Inauguration on Friday January 20, this light might fade, or, heaven forbid, it might shine brighter than a thousand suns.

A Distant Mirror

Some have compared the rise of Trump to other demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini. Others see parallels in the transition of the Roman Republic to an Empire.

Historian Barbara Tuchman has written a compelling narrative of the 14th century that highlights how, in a time of chaos and pestilence, rulers found opportunities to accumulate wealth and power, enjoying an opulent life while ruthlessly exploiting the peasants. They had their 1% back then. Other periods of human history are distant mirrors to our own.

Thing is, they did not have the nuclear codes.

All the news…

Now in my 8th week of fasting from the daily news (for reasons I explained back in October) I’m nevertheless fascinated by the stories I hear people around me discussing (many of which seem to involve the surprise election of a New York property developer). It’s obvious that most of my family and friends are caught up in the drama that is played out 7×24 on multiple channels.

Here’s a great infographic courtesy of Jeff Herrington that David Murray posted to his awesome Writing Boots blog that helps make sense of the available options.

The one world-class news source he omits is the Financial Times which I would place firmly in the top ellipse on the ‘Mainstream: minimal partisan bias’ axis — or perhaps ever so slightly to the liberal side (at least when compared to the WSJ which in my opinion skews further to the right than this graphic shows).

News Outlets

Click to enlarge..

Past provincial life

Half asleep on the evening ferry after a long day at work, half listening to a podcast of a recent episode of Start the Week, I was startled awake by a remarkable poem:

In Wales, wanting to be Italian

(from Over the Moon, by Imtiaz Dharker)

Is there a name for that thing
you do when you are young?
There must be a word for it in some language,
probably German, or if not just
asking to be made up, something like
Fremdlandischgehörenlust or perhaps
Einzumandererslandgehörenwunsch.

What is it called, living in Glasgow,
dying to be French, dying to shrug and pout
and make yourself understood
without saying a word?

Have you ever felt like that, being
in Bombay, wanting to declare,
like Freddy Mercury, that you are
from somewhere like Zanzibar?

What is it called? Being sixteen
in Wales, longing to be Italian,
to be able to say aloud,
without embarrassment, Bella! Bella!
lounge by a Vespa with a cigarette
hanging out of your mouth, and wear
impossibly pointed shoes?

Mod on his Vespa

I knew that truth in my own life, back when I was sixteen and looking for a way to shake the dust of Crewe off my heels, sitting on the back of my friends’ Vespa’s, looking for a way out. Which came for some of us, didn’t it? When we went off to Universities (even ones in Wales), and on to other places in the world than that dirty old town, where we’d met our love, by the gasworks wall n’all.

Trevor Noah on the language of Donald Trump

Trevor NoahIn a wide-ranging interview on Fresh Air, late night TV host Trevor Noah comments on the appeal of Donald Trump, specifically the language he uses. This is worth quoting at length since it confirms what Bob Lehrman writes about, Kate Peters advises, and I’ve observed about Trump’s rhetoric:

I came to realize the power and the importance of language.

It’s more than just language and the way we perceive it. If you look at this election, I feel like Donald Trump was speaking a different language to Hillary Clinton. Y’know it’s not dissimilar to what we saw in South Africa with our president Jacob Zuma.

I remember sitting with people laughing when they would watch the debates, and they’d go “This guys a buffoon. Oh man, he has such a low word count, he’s got the grammar of a five-year-old, the vocabulary of a toddler.” And I said, “Yeah, but do you know how many people find that appealing right now? He’s up there and everyone understands what he’s saying.” Like: “Can you imagine this guy as a President?”

And I said, “Yeah, but think of how many people who, for the first time, are listening to a Presidential candidate and understanding every single quote and policy that he puts forward?” And sometimes that’s a thing that, I will call the elites, not even liberal elites, just people who are educated, forget sometimes.

Communication is more important than your grasp of language.

Can you communicate effectively as a person?
.
.
You’ve got to be careful in deciding what your intention is. Are you using language as a flourish or are you trying to communicate effectively as possible with another human being? And that’s what Donald Trump, in my opinion, did very, very well.

Truth is: Trump’s communication style resonates with many Americans.

Acts 2:19

I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. – Acts 2:19

While I’m not a superstitious type I looked out of my window as the sun rose this morning and, lo, to the east their appeared a wondrous sight:

Sky Smoke

I’m no prophet…but a thought did occur to me:

Trump Smoke

However, this Thursday I’ll be gathering with friends and family to give thanks for what Is, not what might be:

They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts… Acts 2:46

Public Speaking for Fun and Profit

While there are many Toastmasters and National Speakers Association members who speak for fun and profit, none can touch the stellar earnings that retired (but not retiring) politicians can rake in at the podium.

As I reported back in 2008, ex-President Clinton (well, I suppose there’s still only one, so no need to clarify like there is with the confusing Bush, Snr and Bush, Jnr) earned beaucoup bucks from the podium.

Now the UK Independent newspaper is shocked, shocked! to hear that ex-PM Cameron (no need to clarify, unlike Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger) earns £2,000 per minute speaking about the defining issue of his premiership: the Brexit vote. They note that

While Prime Minister, Mr Cameron earnt £143,462 per year, the standard salary for the role.

Now he’s no longer forced to slum it in Number 10 he can jet around the world in Tony Blair’s footsteps, who knows how to earn a few bob post-Westminster.

Of course, career politicians of this ilk can cash in giving an hour speech here and there, while lesser ones must make money the old fashioned way, as lobbyists and board members.

David Cameron Speaks

California Dreaming

SFMOMAThere’s a shockingly misinformed review of the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in the Weekend FT. The article, Westward, look, the land is bright (the title taken from a line in an an obscure 19th century poem) is written by the cosmopolitan architect Thomas Sevcik. While I can’t comment on his claims about the overall quality of the art on display in the new museum, or quibble with the cultural shift to the West Coast from the East in the U.S., there’s no way to overlook the ridiculousness of four of his ideas.

The end of art fairs

Sevcik anticipates the time when  ‘the West Coast-driven digitalisation of the art market makes art fairs obsolete’. Despite initiatives such as the Google Art Project, to properly appreciate art you still have to be able to eyeball it up close. Buyers and sellers like to sip wine and be seduced by expensive art in a face-to-face setting. Despite the success of Amazon, people still attend the Franfurt Book Fair and flock to Hay-on-Wye. A couple of years back, Jan Dalley wrote in the FT on the paradox of performance: despite digialization people still like to meet in person.

You need a humanities education to collect art

Central to Sevcik’s article is the power of money to influence art. The fact that the highlights of SFMOMA were gifted by the founders of the Gap clothing stores is consigned to a sidebar. Sevcik wonders if the titans of tech will buy art, in contrast to the East Coast plutocracy that included bankers who ‘collected art because many of them had a humanities education’. Perhaps these guys did take a few art history classes on their way to economics, finance and accounting degrees. But that does not mean everyone with a tech fortune studies nothing by computer science in college. Steve Jobs famously audited calligraphy classes at Reed College. Many of the most successful (Ellison, Zuckerberg, Gates) never actually finished college. When not collecting racing yachts Oracle’s Larry Ellison has an appreciation for Japanese art and culture.

The media is based in LA

Throughout the article, Sevcik conflates Los Angles, San Francisco and Seattle. At times he talks about the “West Coast” as a whole. Then he gets it spectacularly wrong on LA:

Most of the TV series we like so much, and virtually all globally relevant movies, are invented, written, developed and managed in Los Angeles.

Don’t tell this to Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers, the people of Michigan or Louisiana. Indeed, it’s been noted that Hollywood continues to flee California at an alarming rate.

We’re all about to become polygamists

OK, up to now the article has made some points that can be argued either way (maybe a majority of media does originate in LA; perhaps, given their wealth, tech titans don’t invest in as much art as others; and Bill Gates’ Seattle mansion does have digitized art on display) but in assessing the current ‘West Coast lifestyle’ Sevcik goes completely off the rails:

New West Coast lifestyle ideas, from questions about robots, cyborgs and space travel, to the legalization of polygamy (soon to come?)…

Say what?

I can only suspect this is either a wishful Freudian slip on the part of the author, or a typo on the part of an FT editor smoking the substance whose legalization might soon come but has nothing to do with outdated Mormon marriage practices.

Are you missing a sense of place?

You’re everywhere and nowhere baby, that’s where you’re at
Going down a bumpy hillside, in your hippy hat
Flying across the country, and getting fat
Saying everything is groovy, when your tires are flat

– Jeff Beck, Hi Ho Silver Lining

I recently flew across the country on a business trip to Boston, the place where I spent my first two years in America. Revisiting old haunts in Somerville and Cambridge I found some familiar places that were mostly unchanged (Harvard Yard, the newsstand, the Coop) mixed together with a gentrified Inman Square and a booming Bean Town where, as in San Francisco, rising property prices are impacting traditional blue collar neighborhoods.

Since living in Boston I’ve called Portland Oregon, Bristol, Minneapolis and the San Francisco Bay Area home. Beforehand, I’d lived in Crewe and Leicester in the UK. All that moving around has left me with a distinct lack of a ‘sense of the continuing stories of a corner of the world and feeling absorbed into the pattern’ that comes from being rooted in one place as landscape architect Kim Wilkie writes in the Weekend FT.

Wilkie contrasts Voltaire’s recommendation to “cultivate our garden” in his satirical novel Candide (apparently banned in Boston as late as 1929, if Wikipedia is to be believed!) with the rootlessness of modern life:

Airbnb SloganOne of the more disconcerting advertisements I have seen recently is the Airbnb poster with the banner line “Belong Anywhere” — or perhaps belong nowhere? There is a beguiling freedom to anonymous movement. It allows you to develop individual identity and escape the preconceptions of your childhood. But at what point does freedom become rootlessness and alienation? Perhaps wandering is ideally just for teenagers, especially if you can choose which part of your life to spend as the teenage years.

Since it was partly reading Kerouac’s On The Road that made me originally want to explore America I can hardly complain. I certainly don’t feel alienated here in California where it’s more common to meet fellow immigrants than native sons.

Wilkie debates whether it’s best to cultivate a garden, or just accept that ‘many of us remain teenagers until we die’ and go with the flow. Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss would no doubt agree with Jeff Beck that everything is groovy despite life’s occasional flat tires.