Booch News

In November 2018 I launched a new blog.

Booch News is the premier source for independent news about all aspects of the kombucha industry — the beverage that is taking the world by storm.

It offers an in-depth look into the kombucha industry,  discusses the latest trends, marketing techniques, news, profiles, and other topics related to kombucha.

I’ll still post occasional updates to Professionally Speaking, but most of my attention these days is on Booch News. Meanwhile, the 900+ posts and 100+ podcast interviews on this site will remain as an archive of useful information.

Working Life V: The HP Way 2004-2008

Following 15 years at Sun Microsystems and the sudden layoff that ended my work for a company that I fully expected to stay with until I reached retirement age, as described in my Working Life Part IV, I faced the challenge of making a living in Silicon Valley. Luckily, I had developed a network.

Freelancing

My first few months after leaving Sun with a small but welcome severance package were spent looking for freelance speech writing jobs. I was fortunate to have kept in touch with a colleague from my Sun days, who had been a speech writing mentor. Joel Postman had left before the layoffs took effect to work in executive communications at Hewlett-Packard. He helped me pitch for a freelance opportunity to write speeches for Nora Denzel, who headed a software division at the company. I met with her several times and wrote two presentations. By the end of 2004, I had been brought into the company as a full-time employee.

Blogging

Coincident with joining HP as a freelancer, I started kicking around the idea of this website and blog to build my portfolio and reputation as a freelancer. I took an entire year, but in January 2006, I posted my first blog entry. I’d developed my WordPress skills with Joel, who also promoted himself online. Something he and I, in our different ways, have continued to this day.

The HP Way

I joined a behemoth of a company with over 300,000 employees worldwide formed by the merger of HP and Compaq back in 2001 (and described at the time by my old boss Scott McNealy as the “slow motion collision of two garbage trucks.“)

However, working in the comms division in the HQ building was a smart team that brought professionalism to their daily work. I enjoyed writing content for Nora, who presented with pizzaz and appreciated my work. We traveled to HP facilities in Europe, including the labs outside Bristol, where I’d last lived in 1999. The city streets were familiar. Later that same trip, I booked a presentation at the Telco World Congress conference in Barcelona in January 2005. Nora had to return to California for meetings and then back across the Atlantic for this event. Unfortunately, it was the Friday before the formal event opening that weekend, and a mere 20 people were in the audience.

It was on that trip that we were sitting at breakfast in a hotel when Nora glanced at a message on her phone, gasped, and handed it to me. The HP Board had just forced CEO Carly Fiorina out.

Fiorina had riled many of the old guard at HP, who still clung to the “HP Way” created by the company founders back in the 1950s.

Shortly after, Nora’s responsibilities changed, and I was reassigned to support the head of HR, Chilean-born Marcela Perez de Alonso. I only supported her for a few months. However, my one contribution was her presentation at an Organizational Development conference in San Francisco, where I took the initiative to record the presentation and have it transcribed. Bizarrely, this is still available on the HP website.

HP Labs

After my brief stint supporting HR, I was asked to move into the storied HP Labs and support the newly appointed Prith Banerjee. He had spent many years in academia and was well-respected by the Labs 500 engineers in seven worldwide locations. However, he had to fall in line with the new CEO’s cost-cutting initiatives and canceled some “fringe” projects. Nevertheless, there were plenty of fascinating research topics to write about. I attended a ‘poster session’ at an HP Labs gathering in Boston where I asked researchers to describe their project so their grandmother or young child could understand the technology. There was work on the environmental impact of data centers, insights into the future, and an opportunity to meet retired employees who had been there in the early days.

HP Labs occupied the building where founders Bill Hewett and Dave Packard had their adjoining offices, kept as a shrine to their vision and innovation. Prominently displayed on the 60s-era desk was the icon HP pocket calculator. (Between the two offices was the private washroom they shared!)

MagCloud

One of the unexpected benefits of my association with the Labs was an early introduction to the MagCloud print-on-demand service for magazines. Engineers Udi Chatow and Andrew Bolwell explained the ease with which anyone with a PDF document could produce excellent quality ‘evergreen’ magazines. At the time I was the president of the Northern California Chapter of the National Speakers Association and convinced the members of the value of own high-quality magazine. Six editions of SPEAKER magazine resulted. Later, I helped Kombucha Brewers International produce SYMBIOSIS. Editions of both remain online and available as PDF downloads or printed magazines.

Mark Hurd

In March 2005, Mark Hurd was recruited from NCR and appointed CEO. His tenure was, to say the least, interesting.

He started out focused on ROI across the company, and cost-cutting measures were implemented. Wall Street was delighted. Wikipedia:

Under Hurd’s tenure, the company met Wall Street expectations in 21 out of 22 quarters and increased profits for 22 straight quarters, while its revenue rose 63% and stock price doubled. He laid off 15,200 workers  — 10% of the workforce — shortly after becoming CEO. Other cost-cutting included reducing the IT department from 19,000 to 8,000, reducing the number of software applications that HP used from 6,000 to 1,500, and consolidating HP’s 85 data centers to 6. During the 2009 recession, depending on job role Hurd imposed a temporary 5%, 10% or 15% pay cut on all employees and removed many benefits.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hurd

Despite his successful stewardship of the company finances, Hurd was — like Fiorina before him — forced out by the board over a dubious HR issue in August 2010. He went on to a successful career at Oracle and sadly passed away in 2019, aged 62.

Pretexting scandal

“A fish rots from the head.” (Turkish proverb)

For a company founded in a garage listed as “the birthplace of Silicon Valley,” the period I worked there was not a happy one. This was not the fault of the many dedicated employees, but more the actions of leaders, especially the Board of Directors. Wikipedia again:

On September 5, 2006, Newsweek revealed that the general counsel of Hewlett-Packard, at the behest of HP chairwoman Patricia Dunn, had contracted a team of independent security experts to investigate board members and several journalists in order to identify the source of an information leak. In turn, those security experts recruited private investigators who used a spying technique known as pretexting. The pretexting involved investigators impersonating HP board members and nine journalists (including reporters for CNET, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal) in order to obtain their phone records. The information leaked related to HP’s long-term strategy and was published as part of a CNET article in January 2006.

Patricia Dunn claimed she did not know beforehand the methods the investigators used to try to determine the source of the leak. Board member George Keyworth was ultimately accused of being the source and on September 12, 2006, he resigned, although he continued to deny making unauthorized disclosures of confidential information to journalists and was thanked by Mark Hurd for his board service. It was also announced at that time that Dunn would continue as chairwoman until January 18, 2007, at which point HP CEO Mark Hurd would succeed her. Then, on September 22, 2006 HP announced that Dunn had resigned as chairwoman because of the “distraction her presence on our board” created. On September 28, 2006, Ann Baskins, HP’s general counsel, resigned hours before she was to appear as a witness before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, where she would ultimately invoke the Fifth Amendment to refuse to answer questions.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hewlett-Packard_spying_scandal

I witnessed the challenge the scandal posed to my colleagues in the Corporate Comms department.

Soon enough, however, the restructuring in the company came to the team I was part of. A new head of Marketing followed the CEO’s directive to cut costs, and in August 2008, just under four years after joining the company, I was one of a large group he dismissed.

It was back to the freelance life.

The A. I. Sub-editor

My letter to the Weekend FT was somewhat marred by what I thought was a misleading title written by an FTT sub-editor. In contrast, my 2019 letter disputing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s claim to be “the first populist that was elected” was given a brilliant title:

A.I. Sub

Working on tight deadlines, on a Friday night at the FT’s HQ on London’s South Bank, it’s challenging for subs looking to capture the essence of each of the letters on their editorial page.

Would generative A.I. help? I decided to put it to the test, starting with my own letter and this ChatGPT prompt:

Act as a newspaper subeditor. Write short 8-10 word headlines for this letter to the editor [INSERT TEXT OF LETTER]

Here’s the results, following the FT’s choice.

  1. “Alphabet’s Revolution: A Cultural Shift Unveiled”
  2. “Surgeon’s Thesis: Alphabet’s Brain Impact Through History”
  3. “Shlain’s Insight: Alphabet Reshaping Religion, Science, Gender”
  4. “From Goddess to Patriarchy: The Alphabet’s Influence Exposed”
  5. “Challenging Myths: Quinn Dissects Alphabet’s Cultural Impact”
  6. “Shaping Minds: The Alphabet’s Journey Through History”
  7. “Cultural Clash: Quinn Takes on White Nationalist Mythology”
  8. “Optimistic Outlook: Shlain Envisions Brain Evolution Beyond Alphabet”
  9. “Images Over Words: Shlain’s Hope for Right-Brained Culture”
  10. “Feminine Wisdom: Shlain Posits Return Amid Cultural Change”
  1. “Revisiting the Greeks: Professor Quinn on Civilization’s Complex Evaluation”
  2. “Beyond pedestals: Professor Quinn’s Insights on Classical Greek Contributions”
  3. “Greeks and Governance: Professor Quinn Dissects Ancient Achievements”
  4. “Classical Greek Legacy: Professor Quinn Challenges Modern Perspectives”
  5. “Meta Leap in Governance: Professor Quinn Explores Greek Brilliance”
  6. “Transcending Relativism: Professor Quinn on Classical Greek Endurance”
  7. “Civilization’s Essence: Professor Quinn Reflects on Greek Achievements”
  8. “Beyond Reductionism: Professor Quinn on the Greek Civilization Myth”
  9. “Classical Greek Brilliance: Professor Quinn’s Thought-Provoking Perspective”
  10. “Quinn’s Reflections: Rethinking Classical Greek Contributions to Civilization”
  1. “Chloe Aridjis Unveils Delightful Journey Through Madrid’s Prado”
  2. “Aridjis’ Artful Adventure: Two Months at Madrid’s Prado Revealed”
  3. “Museum Sanctuary: Aridjis’ Reflections Illuminate Art and Struggle”
  4. “Prado Perspectives: Chloe Aridjis Explores Museums as Sanctuaries”
  5. “Aridjis’ Madrid Memoir: A Unique Glimpse into Museum Sanctuaries”
  6. “Chloe Aridjis’ Artful Escape: Two Months at the Prado”
  7. “From London to Madrid: Aridjis’ Museum Journey Unveiled”
  8. “Exploring Museums: Aridjis’ Essay Sheds Light on Art Sanctuaries”
  9. “Prado and Beyond: Aridjis’ Journey into Museum Sanctuaries”
  10. “Chloe Aridjis’ Museum Musings: A Unique Perspective on Art”
  1. “JLR Chief’s Bold Request: Should Taxpayers Subsidize Luxury SUV Security?”
  2. “JLR’s Dilemma: Taxpayer Subsidy for Luxury SUV Security Sparks Controversy”
  3. “JLR’s CEO Stirs Debate: Should Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Security?”
  4. “Luxury Car Controversy: JLR Calls for Taxpayer Support on Security”
  5. “JLR’s Taxpayer Appeal: Security Costs or Executive Priorities?”
  6. “Luxury Car Maker Faces Backlash: JLR’s Request Sparks Outcry”
  7. “JLR’s Security Saga: CEO Proposes Taxpayer Support Amid Record Profits”
  8. “JLR’s Bold Ask: Taxpayers Subsidize Security for Stolen Luxury SUVs”
  9. “JLR CEO Sparks Controversy: Taxpayers Footing the Bill for Security?”
  10. “Luxury SUVs and Taxes: JLR’s Request Raises Eyebrows”
  1. “Range Rover Mystery: Unoccupied Idling Raises Security Concerns”
  2. “JLR Boss Called Out: Range Rover Left Idling Sparks Questions”
  3. “Car Park Conundrum: Unmanned Range Rover Raises Eyebrows”
  4. “Range Rover Riddle: Owner’s Remote Starter Mishap Spurs Controversy”
  5. “JLR’s Security Quandary: Unattended Range Rover Raises Issues”
  6. “Remote Start Mishap: Unmanned Range Rover Puzzles Onlookers”
  7. “JLR Customer Education: Unmanned Range Rover Prompts Suggestions”
  8. “Idle Investigation: Unattended Range Rover Spurs Security Discussion”
  9. “Range Rover Dilemma: JLR Boss Urged for Customer Education”
  10. “Mystery at the Station: Unmanned Range Rover Raises Alarms”
  1. “Decoding Tipping Dilemmas: Insights from Jo Ellison’s Column”
  2. “Tipping Tales: Navigating Cultural Differences and Digital Transactions”
  3. “From Paris to Tips: Jo Ellison Sheds Light on Tipping”
  4. “The Tipping Mystery: Jo Ellison’s Column Unveils Insights”
  5. “Cultural Quirks: Jo Ellison Explores Tipping Challenges Abroad”
  6. “Digital Transactions and Human Touch: Tipping Insights Unveiled”
  7. “Parisian Tipping Woes: Jo Ellison’s Column Sparks Reflection”
  8. “Small Change, Big Impact: Jo Ellison’s Perspective on Tipping”
  9. “Tipping Etiquette Unveiled: Jo Ellison’s Column Sparks Discussion”
  10. “From Tears to Tips: Jo Ellison’s Column Resonates with Readers”
  1. “Rudeness and Noodles: Tim Harford Reflects on Wong Kei’s”
  2. “Wong Kei’s Legacy: Tim Harford Explores Rude Service Charm”
  3. “Rudeness Revisited: Tim Harford’s Take on Wong Kei’s Tradition”
  4. “Chinatown Charm: Tim Harford on the Quirky Appeal of Wong Kei’s”
  5. “Noodles and Blunt Humour: Tim Harford Recalls Wong Kei’s”
  6. “Wong Kei’s Wit: Tim Harford Explores the Charm of Rudeness”
  7. “Quirky Dining: Tim Harford’s Reflection on Wong Kei’s Signature”
  8. “Rude Service Charm: Tim Harford’s Nostalgic Wong Kei’s Tale”
  9. “Wong Kei’s Legacy Lives On: Tim Harford’s Humorous Memories”
  10. “Dining with Attitude: Tim Harford Reminisces Wong Kei’s Style”
  1. “McCarthy’s Ambition: A Tribal Tale in American Politics”
  2. “Driven by Ambition: McCarthy’s Political Portrait Unveiled”
  3. “Tribal Politics: McCarthy’s Ambition Revealed in FT Interview”
  4. “US Speaker’s Ambition: A Reflection on McCarthy’s Legacy”
  5. “Political Tribalism: McCarthy’s Ambition Under the Spotlight”
  6. “Retrospective Ambition: Kevin McCarthy’s Political Journey Unveiled”
  7. “McCarthy’s Legacy: Ambition and Tribalism in US Politics”
  8. “Tribal Ties: Former US Speaker McCarthy’s Driven Ambition”
  9. “Kevin McCarthy Unmasked: Ambition and Tribalism in Politics”
  10. “Politics of Ambition: McCarthy’s Tribal Approach in the Spotlight”
  1. “Cheers to Tech: AI and the Future of Wine Experts”
  2. “Wine App Worries: Alice Lascelles Explores AI’s Impact”
  3. “Tech vs. Terroir: Can an AI App Replace Wine Experts?”
  4. “Sipping into the Future: Alice Lascelles on Wine and AI”
  5. “I, Vin: A Catchy Alternative to AI Sommelier Apps”
  6. “Pour Decisions: Alice Lascelles Ponders AI in Wine”
  7. “Wine and Tech: Alice Lascelles Weighs in on AI Sommeliers”
  8. “Sommelier or AI? The Future of Wine Expertise Explored”
  9. “Wine Trends: Alice Lascelles Delves into AI’s Influence”
  10. “I, Vin: A Quirky Suggestion for Wine App Enthusiasts”

Win some, lose some

Looking over these lists, it’s clear that generative AI cannot match the subs at their best. The Eugene Onegin pun went above and beyond the wit of the original letter. Other headlines from the FT were more pedestrian.

However, the AI text overdoes words like “unveiled” and “revealed”. It also inserts the article author’s name too frequently. However, I found it useful as a brainstorming tool, where the final headline can be cherry-picked from suggestions. I plucked my own alternate headline (“Rewiring brains for a return to feminine values”) from a previous list of ChatGPT suggestions. Among the ten suggestions for the visit to the Prado and the McCarthy letter is the exact text used by the FT. I liked “Rudeness and noodles: Chinatown charm” taken from that list of suggestions. “Tech vs. Terroir: Can an AI App Replace Wine Experts?” has appeal.

The Civilization Myth

As I’ve previously noted, the late author Leonard Shlain has written several insightful books that examine how literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. I was especially impressed by his analysis of the impact of the alphabet. I wrote a letter to the Financial Times in response to historian Josephine Quinn’s essay The Civilization Myth, which also identified the revolutionary impact of adopting the alphabet on Western culture:

… the arrival of the alphabet was more revolutionary than it may sound. It is apparently more natural for humans to record syllables than individual sounds…Reading and writing in one’s own spoken tongue may seem natural today, especially to English speakers. But for many it is a relatively recent choice, and in antiquity it was unusual…Literacy was a niche skill, learnt with great labor and only by scribes, until the inventors of the alphabet devised a neat trick. Each of their “letters” was originally a little picture, signalling for them the first sound of the word for the item depicted. So the sign for “a” was the head of a bull, “alef” in the Levantine language, “b” was a schematic house or “bet”, and so on. Because the signs represented sounds, not syllables, there were far fewer of them. And you didn’t actually have to learn them anyway: you just needed to know the language, and the trick.

The myth of civilizations

Quinn couched these comments in the broader context of superficially pluralistic “myth of civilization”, where Putin sees Russia as an “original civilization-state”; Chinese premier Xi Jinping has launched a new Global Civilization Initiative, to celebrate the world’s “unique and long civilizations . . . transcending time and space”. Meanwhile

Everyone is worried about the west. For some it is under attack, from refugees, terrorists or wokery. For others the west is itself the problem, forever imposing its own values as a universal good. But no one is sure what it actually is — or rather, where it stops.

She takes issue with scholars who promote the idea of distinct civilizations, “Western,” “Orthodox,” and “Islamic,” with these having roots in the ancient world of Greek and Roman civilizations.

Civilizational thinking of this kind depends on an idea of separate cultures growing like individual trees in a forest, with their own roots and branches distinct from those of their neighbors. They emerge, flourish and decline, and they do so largely alone.

The truth, Quinn argues, is that this view of distinct civilizations is “a modern confection, invented by 19th-century scholars to emphasize the superiority of their own nations and the justice of their empires.”

She sees the interaction between cultures as a critical driver of human social development:

Local and regional cultures come and go, but they are created and sustained by interaction. The encounters involved don’t have to be friendly. But it is those connections that drive historical change, from the boats that brought the African donkey and the Eurasian wheel to the Aegean in the third millennium BCE to the ships equipped with the Chinese compass that brought Europeans to the Americas 4,000 years later, to conquer them with Chinese gunpowder.

Angry White Men

Quinn concludes her essay by debunking the anti-immigration, white nationalism of the emerging authoritarians:

First promoted by the French activist Renaud Camus in his 2011 book Le Grand Remplacement, the theory that the white or indigenous European population is being replaced by immigrants in a form of reverse-colonisation is now a staple of rightwing conspiracy theorists, white supremacists and mass shooters around the world. This poisonous rhetoric depends heavily on the idea of a distinct civilization — French, British, western or white — that is under threat from different and alien cultures and especially from their children.

But it’s the idea of civilization itself that is the real problem, and in particular the notion that it is a zero-sum game, with higher cultures under threat from migrant, fecund foreign values. There has never been a pure western culture that is now under threat of pollution. No single people is an island, unless they’ve been there for a very long time and haven’t invented boats. And that’s a good thing: without new relationships between different people exchanging unfamiliar ideas, nothing much would ever happen at all.

Letter to the Editor

My one complaint with the FT is that the sub-editor who chose the title for my letter misinterprets Shlain. Literacy in the ancient world (the arrival of the alphabet) is precisely NOT like the internet for us. Better would be a title like ‘Rewiring brains for a return to feminine values.’

Guest Post: Speechwriting Resources, by Terry Szuplat

Thanks to Obama speechwriter (2009-17) and Adjunct Professor of Speechwriting at American University Terry Szuplat for posting this resource list to LinkedIn. Be sure to check the Comments on LinkedIn for additional resources.

Do you want to become a better speaker or writer? Here are 21 people I follow here on LinkedIn who offer great tips every day…

  • Matt Abrahams: an expert in organizational behavior with evidence-based strategies for staying calm and speaking spontaneously
  • Oliver Aust: great carousels, including 9 killer opening lines for your next talk
  • Alex Banks: the latest news in AI, including how to use a chatbot to enhance your writing and research
  • Jade Bonacolta: irresistible carousels, including 7 of the most inspiring speeches of all time to start your day
  • Nathan Baugh: easy hacks for great structure and storytelling, from ancient times to today, including 10 mistakes that are killing your story
  • Neringa Bliūdžiūtė: Lithuanian speechwriter and coach with candid advice for writers and speakers alike, including how to avoid “gray language” that “no one wants to listen to”
  • Nausheen I. Chen 🔥: carousels on topics like what she changed after getting comments for being “a girl with purple hair and an eyebrow ring”
  • Cheril Clarke: Puebla-based ghostwriter with a hilarious take on why “ChatGPT is the boyfriend I never wanted”
  • Jeremy Connell-Waite: distills great speeches into stunning one-page hand-crafted infographics and tutorials, including how you can change the world in 1,000 seconds
  • Eva Rose Daniel: practical tips for how to bring sparkle to your speeches, including how to avoid “weak language” and why you might want to eat potato chips before a speech
  • Asiwaju Dorcas: speech coach and trainer based in Nigeria who warns against one of the biggest mistakes in public speaking: “saying too much”
  • Nancy Duarte: her TED Talk on “The Secret Structure of Great Talks” has been viewed +3 million times
  • John-Paul Flintoff: shares how improv and his time in a psychiatric hospital after a mental health crisis made him a better speaker
  • Michael Franklin: a founder of Speechwriters of Color, dedicated to making our profession more inclusive and equitable
  • Brian Jenner: the tireless force behind the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and the European Speechwriter Network
  • Simon Lancaster: his TED Talk “Speak Like a Leader” has been viewed +4 million times
  • David Murray: helps you sharpen your skills and build your network through the Professional Speechwriters Association
  • Antti Mustakallio: puts on a fantastic conference in his hometown in Finland–the Summer School of Rhetoric
  • Verity Price, WCPS: South Africa-based 2021 World Champion of Public Speaking devoted to inspiring and empowering other speakers
  • Dana Rubin: has collected thousands of speeches by extraordinary women in her Speaking While Female Speech Bank
  • Nicole Thomson-Pride: Australian speechwriter and parent who shares why her 7-year-old son called one writer “naughty”

We are what we wear

Display of wealth through clothes arrived in Europe in the late thirteenth century when a person’s class affiliation was signaled by what they wore. Because dress was recognized as an expressive and a potent means of social distinction, it was often exploited by the upper classes to gain leverage over others.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that the dominant social classes tend to possess not only wealth but “cultural capital” as well. In matters of dress, this capital manifests itself in the possession of refined taste and sensibilities that are passed down from one generation to the next. Taste is not pure. Bourdieu demonstrates that our different aesthetic choices are all distinctions – that is, choices made in opposition to those made by other classes.

Economist Thorstein Veblen, argues that the drive for social mobility moves fashion. In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Veblen claims that the wealthy class exercised fashion leadership through sartorial display of conspicuous consumption. Upper-class people dressed in way that indicated they did not carry out manual work, that they had enough disposable income to spend on an extensive wardrobe, and — long before Rent the Runway — that they were able to wear a garment only a few times before deeming it obsolete.

American style

Writing in the Weekend FT, columnist Robert Armstrong examines American style and what it says about class. He notes a fundamental dichotomy in what many American’s think of as a ‘classless society.”

If, like me, you think of clothing in terms of cultural capital as much as its visual properties, you will notice that the dichotomy [between workwear and preppy clothes] maps very well on to Americans’ jittery and contradictory attitudes towards its class system. The preppy branch speaks to a fantasy about moneyed ease, about how the upper classes, free from aspiration, fritter their time away sailing, hunting, playing tennis. It is east coast and old money. The workwear branch, on the other hand, speaks to a fantasy of earthy authenticity, of autonomous, honest work. It is western and owes nothing to inheritance and pedigree.

The appeal of both fantasies is apparent and both are peculiarly American, opposed though they may be. We all aspire to be educated and successful, and to be totally relaxed and sophisticated about our success. We all want to be the Kennedys at Hyannis Port. At the same time, we hate all that. We want to be rugged individualists who trust in our hands and live by our word, who don’t want the rich man’s dollar, his country club or his company. To be American is to entertain both the urge to separate from the working class and to identify deeply with it.

The denial of the class system in America is coeval with the class system itself. We Americans all acknowledge that there are wide disparities in wealth. What each of us denies about ourselves is that class retains a powerful moral, social and aesthetic valence. The thinness of our denials is revealed by the incredible persistence of the two styles. Even as it has become standard to criticise the elite and their institutions, prep marches on. And even as we have become a nation of service workers and data manipulators, workwear is everywhere. Class consciousness is inscribed in our clothes.

Weekend Financial Times, January 20, 2023

Armstrong credits Ralph Lauren as a genius who was able to “play the two styles off each other” and that “both the preppy and the workwear traditions are essentially about the outdoors: the idea of physical freedom and vigour. So is the idea of casualness. Part of both codes is not looking like you are trying too hard.”

This in the land where hard work is a fetish that trumps, so to speak, all other values.

Source: Midjourney A.I. — Click to enlarge

The A.I. Speechwriter – Tools of the trade

My 3-part series on ways generative A.I. can be of value to speechwriters started with a simple example of generating ideas for a Best Man’s wedding speech, reviewed how it can help corporate speechwriters, and concluded with a deep dive into political speechwriting. In all cases, I emphasized that generative A.I. is a tool and not a replacement for a flesh-and-blood writer, and in no way should be relied on for verbatim scripts.

Source: MidJourney A.I.

Search engines

As technology evolves, there are now A.I. tools (often based on large language models like ChatGPT) that speechwriters can employ to speed the plow and hone their craft.

Gone are the days when writers would sharpen their quill pen, dip into an inkwell, and refer to dusty reference books for pertinent data. Some might still work this way. For the rest, a search engine, spell checker, and word processor are essential tools.

So, let’s look at how search can be improved beyond the ubiquitous Google machine.

Perplexity A.I.

Writing in today’s New York Times, Kevin Roose asks Can This A.I.-Powered Search Engine Replace Google? He is referring to Perplexity A.I., a year-old program built on ChatGPT that generates responses to questions “generally a paragraph or two long, sprinkled with citations to websites like NPR, The New York Times and Reddit, along with a list of suggested follow-up questions…”

Perplexity elaborates:

What are the unique features of Perplexity that set it apart from Google?

Perplexity AI offers several unique features that set it apart from Google. These include:

  1. Comprehensive Responses: Perplexity AI has the ability to synthesize information from diverse sources to provide comprehensive responses, unlike Google, which often returns a list of links or snippets of information23.
  2. Ad-Free User Experience: Perplexity AI provides an ad-free user experience, prioritizing the delivery of relevant and accurate information without ad interference, unlike Google, which relies on an ad revenue model3.
  3. Focus on Accuracy and Context-Rich Answers: Perplexity AI focuses on providing accurate, context-rich answers, making it a powerful tool for users seeking in-depth understanding of complex subjects2.
  4. Real-Time Information and Organization Features: Perplexity AI offers real-time information, accuracy, awareness, and organization features, providing users with the most current information in a well-organized manner4.
  5. Accuracy in Text Generation: Perplexity AI is known for its knack for generating more accurate text compared to other AI language models like ChatGPT and Google Bard5.

While Perplexity AI has these unique features, it’s important to note that it is still under development and may occasionally face challenges in generating accurate text5.

Let’s consider how a speechwriter might use a search engine. I first addressed this question back in 2006 and suggested 29 tools that were current at the time, noting:

You can wander through a lush forest of ideas in an online encyclopedia, way-back machines, and other arcane sources as you prepare to select the timber for your next project. But when you are up against a deadline and need a fact, quote, or an opinion, then, like a master carpenter who reaches for just the right drill bit or chisel, the accomplished writer needs to know which search tool to use for the job. The faster you can cut through the crap and find the facts, the sooner you’ll finish the project, and the more pleasing the result will be.

That decades-old list was a Google-fest. Since then, as Roose notes, “Google seems less invincible these days. Many users have complained that their Google search results have gotten clogged with spammy, low-quality websites…”

My post on how political speechwriters could use generative A.I. was built around the example of the British HS2 train debate. Let’s say your principal wants to engage an audience about this topic, and, unlike me, you are not from the railway town of Crewe — a key terminus of the now-canceled HS2 project. So you need some background, either to refer to in the presentation, or for the briefing book and ask “What was the importance of the railway industry in the growth of Crewe, England?”

Here’s the top of the list of links Google provides in response to this query:

A savvy speechwriter can dig into these references and extract enough detail for a summary of the importance of rail to the town’s growth.

Ask Perplexity the same question, and a succinct paragraph–with references–is returned:

The railway industry has been of great importance in the growth of Crewe, England. Crewe owes its existence to the railways, with the arrival of its station in the 1830s thanks to the Grand Junction Railway, which transformed the small rural village into a significant hub of the UK’s railway network 4. At its height, about 20,000 people were employed at Crewe Works, and although it is no longer such a major employer, a significant proportion of the workforce is still connected to the railways 4. The town’s strong historical links to the railway industry make it an ideal location for the headquarters of Great British Railways, and its rail heritage is celebrated at the Crewe Heritage Centre 4. The railway industry has played a critical role in the town’s development and continues to be an important part of its identity 4.

Red Flag Warning!

Surprisingly, when I chose the option for Perplexity to ‘rewrite’ the answer with the ‘Copilot’ (offering “a more accurate and thorough search”), it started hallucinating:

The railway industry played a pivotal role in the growth and development of Crewe, England. Crewe owes its existence to the railways, with the arrival of its station in the 1930s transforming it from a small rural village into a significant hub of the UK’s railway network.1. The railway company owned and controlled almost everything in Crewe until 1938, when the Crewe Corporation Act was passed4. At its peak, the railway industry employed 20,000 people at Crewe Works, and even though it’s no longer such a major employer, a significant proportion of the workforce is still connected to the railways1. The town has retained and attracted many rail and rail supply chain businesses, which have innovated and evolved over time5. Crewe’s railway heritage has also contributed to its visitor economy, with its key role in the development of the railways attracting tourists 3. Today, while other industries such as automobile and clothing manufacturing have emerged, railways remain important to the town 4.The railway industry’s influence on Crewe extends to its future growth prospects. The town’s role in High Speed 2, a major UK rail project, has been evolving since 2014, ensuring Crewe’s continued relevance in the UK railway network6. In summary, the railway industry has been integral to Crewe’s growth, shaping its economy, workforce, and identity.

This is wrong in so many ways: It transposed the 1930s and 1830; the Crewe Corporation Act was passed in 1949; very few “tourists” ever visit what is, frankly, a depressed northern town; and HS2 was canceled in October 2023.

Verification and fact-checking remain vital functions of a professional speech writer. I triangulated the facts listed above with…Google!

But, putting aside that faux pas, the follow-up questions Perplexity suggests in response to the original prompt lead to a more thorough explanation (this time mostly accurate, except it still missed the October 2023 cancellation).

Perplexity suggested asking, “What was the role of Crewe in the development of the railways?”

Crewe, England, played a pivotal role in the development of the railways. The town’s significance in the railway industry is evident from its transformation from a small hamlet into a thriving community, largely due to the establishment of the Grand Junction Railway Company’s station in the mid-19th century 1 2. Crewe became renowned as the world’s greatest railway workshop, with the production of locomotives steadily increasing through the 19th century, and it was the birthplace of thousands of locomotives2. The town’s economy has been strongly influenced by its historical connection to the railways, with the railway industry being a major employer at its peak, and its impact extending to the diversification of industries such as motor cars, computers, higher education, and optical equipment12. Crewe’s status as a significant railway hub is set to be further reinforced by the proposed HS2 high-speed rail project, which is expected to bring economic benefits and contribute to the town’s continued association with the railways 3. In summary, Crewe’s role in the development of the railways has been fundamental, shaping its history, economy, and identity as a “railway town.”

Conclusion

Provided you remain vigilant and cross-check the data, Perplexity is a valuable addition to a speechwriters’ toolkit . Unlike Google, it returns succinct paragraphs and suggests follow-up questions.

But remember, AT NO TIME should ANY generative A.I. text be simply cut ‘n paste into a speech. OK?

Two sides of the American Dream

Another week, another article on American economic exceptionalism. In the Weekend Financial Times (subscription required) statistician John Burn-Mur­doch highlights two sides to the Amer­ican dream — extreme wealth coexisting with extreme poverty. Core beliefs are involved.

Data show that Amer­ic­ans see them­selves as more upwardly mobile than people from other west­ern coun­tries (in real­ity the inverse is true), and are more likely to say hard work is essen­tial for get­ting ahead in life. These are aspir­a­tional, mer­ito­cratic beliefs, but the flip side is that Amer­ic­ans are also the most likely to say low-income people need to pull them­selves up by their boot­straps.

This is coupled with a dis­trust of gov­ern­ment, and in par­tic­u­lar their belief that gov­ern­ment is inef­fi­cient.

While Amer­ic­ans are the most likely to say income inequal­ity in their coun­try is unfair, fewer than half see this as the gov­ern­ment’s respons­ib­il­ity to address. This com­pares with two-thirds or more in the UK, France and Ger­many. Where other soci­et­ies see inequal­ity as something that is done to people and must be tackled by help­ing them, Amer­ic­ans see it as something that people are respons­ible for them­selves.

This generates ten­sions within US soci­ety — where a cul­ture of aspir­a­tion and indi­vidualism that drives entre­pren­eur­i­al wealth gen­er­a­tion, also appears to engender apathy towards inequal­ity and espe­cially towards gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion, leav­ing the poorest to fend for them­selves.

Homeless encampments sprout on the streets of San Francisco, a city with more billionaires per capita than anywhere else. Health care costs more and delivers less than in many countries.

These tensions might well be resolved by political upheaval, as was the case in the France of the 1790s and Germany of the 1930s.

American Health Care: less for more

A not-so-surprising report in the New York Times highlights the fact that America spends more per capita than any other country on the planet on health care, for worse outcomes.

According to these statistics, my peers born in 1952 have just over seven years left to enjoy life in the US of A. What kind of life many will have in their final, not-so-golden, years depends on how much they can afford to spend on elder care. The Times report notes:

The main reason that U.S. health spending is so high is not that Americans are sicker than people elsewhere or are heavier users of medical care (although both those factors play a role). The main reason is that almost every form of care in the U.S. costs more: doctor’s visits, hospital stays, drug prescriptions, surgeries and more. The American health care system maximizes the profits of health care companies at the expense of families’ budgets.

A poignant example of the health care industry in the States putting profits over people is the prices charged by long-term assisted living care homes for the elderly.

These facilities can be highly profitable. “Half of operators in the business of assisted living earn returns of 20 percent or more than it costs to run the sites, an industry survey shows,” Jordan Rau, a reporter for KFF, writes. “That is far higher than the money made in most other health sectors.”

Many facilities, Jordan explains, “charge $5,000 a month or more and then layer on extra fees at every step. Residents’ bills and price lists from a dozen facilities offer a glimpse of the charges: $12 for a blood pressure check; $50 per injection (more for insulin); $93 a month to order medications from a pharmacy not used by the facility; $315 a month for daily help with an inhaler.”

The Times lays the blame squarely on the American free market economy and lack of regulation. The situation has worsened since the 1980s “That decade also happens to be when the U.S. began moving more toward a laissez-faire economy.”

I can only hope that my own life expectancy will permit me to be around for longer than seven more years. Since both my parents lived into their late nineties I hope so. If only I can afford it.

Book Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang

I found this book while browsing in the small bookshop at Point Reyes Station, where I’d bought the Centennial Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses a year before. Like Joyce, Chinese-American author R. F. Kuang has constructed a unique world where individual consciousness, history, and an altered sense of reality are woven together in a compelling novel that I found utterly spellbinding.

Steampunk meets Harry Potter

Part steampunk, part Harry Potter, and yet absolutely unique, Babel invites us into a magical world of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ in early-Victorian Britain.The four protagonists are plucked from their families and enrolled as undergraduates in the gothic Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. Housed in the tower portrayed on the cover, the fictional Institute sits between the Radcliffe and Bodleian libraries. An Author’s Note apologies for the lack of historical and geographic accuracy, despite the novel being crammed with historical and linguistic references that are stunning in their range and accuracy. Extensive footnotes refer to everything from the Peterloo Massacre, organizational competence of the Luddite movement, the French term for an unfortunate situation (Triste comme un repas sans fromage), and a dizzying number of word derivations and root meanings.

A central theme is the challenges of translation and the power of language.

Linguistic powerhouse

The power of words is, in fact, quite literal. The Britain of the 1830s is, in the author’s telling, a global imperial power due to a monopoly of silver. In this novel, silver bars are the engine behind all aspects of the Industrial Revolution: powering factories, transport systems, guns, and maintaining everything from sewer systems to bridges. The bars are empowered by ‘matched-pairs’ of words with closely associated meanings. The Institute trains and houses native-language speaking scholars from across the Empire who create match-pair words and engrave them on silver bars — as do arcane skills of computer engineers today engrave their code onto silicon chips with the circuitry that powers our world.

Cognates — words in different languages that shared a common ancestor and often similar meanings as well — were often the best clues for fruitful match-pairs, since they were on such close branches of the etymological tree. But the difficulty with cognates was that often their meanings were so close that there was little distortion in translation, and thus little effect that the bars could manifest. There was, after all, no significant difference between the word ‘chocolate’ in English and Spanish. Moreover, looking for cognates, one had to be wary of false friends — words that seemed like cognates but had utterly different origins and meanings. The English ‘have’ did not come from the Latin ‘habere’ (‘to hold, to possess’), for example, but from the Latin ‘capere’ (‘to seek’). And the Italian ‘cognato’ did not mean ‘cognate’ like one might hope, but rather ‘brother-in-law’.

page 227-228

It’s a testament to the author’s storytelling skills that passages like the one above become utterly engaging as the plot develops. This is in no small part to how she paints the academic life in such rich colors. There are more than a few shades of Hogwarts in the eccentric professors, cycle of terms and holidays, midnight japes, and sinister secrets. Threaded throughout is a trenchant critique of British imperialism, racism, and exploitation of the working class. This is as sharp a critique of the early 19th century as it is of today’s headlines:

‘You’re trying to win by punishing the city,’ said Professor Chakravarti. ‘That means the whole city, everyone in it — men, women, children. There are sick children who can’t get their medicine. There are whole families with no income and no source of food. This is more than an inconvenience to them, it’s a death threat.’

Page 497

Hence, the full subtitle of the novel ‘Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.’

Immediately after the exchange above, the main protagonist claims, ‘Violence was the only thing that brought the colonizer to the table, violence was the only option.’

And yes, Frantz Fanon gets name-checked.

Throughout this mesmerizing novel, Kunang never loses her way as she weaves the many threads of the story together. It made me want to visit Oxford before the silver bars decay, and the city is lost to time.

Passing the torch to a new generation

Since I’ve retired from my career as a speechwriter (moving on to an all-encompassing passion for kombucha!) it’s exciting to discover a new generation of speechwriters is now podcasting about this profession.

Check out Felicity Barber’s new podcast series The Friendly Ghost. In her first episode she introduces Chandler Dean and Sarah Gruen of West Wing Writers. They discuss the not-so-typical path most writers take to speechwriting, what it’s like to write for someone whose politics may differ from your own, and reflect on how the industry has been shaped by technological and societal change over the years.