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.

The Delights of the Weekend FT

FT LogoI’ve written before of the unlikely content carried by the Weekend Financial Times as well as the vivid prose that is found in the pink pages.

This weekend’s newspaper was a fascinating read. It contains a delightfully random mix of information you’ll find nowhere else:

  • A series of articles in the House & Home section nestled between ads for $23 million New York apartments. These give details of remodeling projects undertaken by members of the newspaper’s staff including the story of a 13-year-long tussle with bureaucrats in Spain to obtain permission to convert a farmhouse into a holiday home. This is followed by a correspondent’s humble upgrade to a garden greenhouse with broken glass panes. Other reports cover remodeling projects in Jakarta, Mozambique, Egypt and South Wales.
  • A prize-winning first-person report from a Bolivian navel base — 2,000km from the ocean — maintained by that landlocked nation (one of nine countries with no coastline that maintain navies).
  • The need for certain huskies on dog-sled teams in Arctic Norway to wear special jackets if they don’t have ‘sufficiently hairy testicles’ to combat the cold.
  • The fact that the average German today owns 10,000 objects, the average British household owns around £4,000 worth of clothes and 6-8% of US adults suffer from compulsive buying disorder or ‘oniomania’.
  • In 2002 a third of all employees in Japan lived in corporate housing.
  • A new book retells the story of The Merchant of Venice in the contemporary setting of Cheshire, my home county in England.
  • An airport is set to open on remote island of St. Helena which contains ‘the world’s most isolated hospital, police station, prison, distillery, cathedral and cricket ground.’
  • The ‘hipster economy’ includes a taste for craft beers, flat whites and beard balm. But there’s no mention of kombucha — surely the hippest of hipster beverages?

Speechwriting in Ancient Rome (II)

CiceroRe-reading the wonderful historical novel on the life of Cicero by author Robert Harris – Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome that I last enjoyed back in 2010 I was struck by this quote on the effort Cicero expended when he was preparing a speech (p. 83):

No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often — usually an hour or two after midnight — there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness, and hiding at home seems the only realistic options. And then, somehow, just as panic and humiliation beckon, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory.

Zen and the Art of Bicycle Riding

Tour de FranceAs the Tour de France peleton rolls through the Alps towards the final stage on the Champs Elysee this Sunday, it’s worth remembering there are other ways in which a bicycle can be ridden. It’s not all high-speed descents of Alpine passes and 100-mile dashes through the French countryside.

Mark HarrisMark Harris is as far from the Lycra-clad racers as he is from the average carnivorous American. As I noted back in February, he has attached a blender to the rear wheel of his bike and is touring the country living off the land on a diet of raw green smoothies.

He has posted a wonderful poem to his blog on The Art Of Transcendental Bicycle Blender Touring which communicates, from the heart, how bicycle touring can liberate us from the concerns of everyday life:

What goes in the bicycle blender is wild and raw,
It is immediate and distinct, unblemished by names,
It goes in at the top, and whirs all the way down the mountain.
It reaches the valley, smooth and creamy,
Having acquired the essence of taste.

The bicycle blender tourist has nowhere to go,
Each moment is a drop in time,
Somehow the mountain descends and rises up again,
With each undulation of the landscape
More names are forgotten

When the bicycle blender heads up the mountain
Much effort is required.
When it coasts down the other side,
There is only ease.
Effort and ease are thrown in the bicycle blender too,
Before long they can’t even be told apart.

But the real magic begins
When the bicycle blender is put in reverse.
Pedaling backwards up the mountain slope,
Eyes wide open, not knowing where anything is,
Green Smoothie is spewed out, over everything,

By the top of the mountain every seeming separate thing,
Has been coated through and through with Green Smoothie,
So that substance itself is a delicious and refreshing drink.

Songs of Innocence and Experience

When you’re alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
When you’ve got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown

Petula ClarkIn January 1965 British singer Petula Clark claimed the number one position in the US charts with the song Downtown that had been written by the London-based songwriter Tony Hatch after he’d visited New York.

The music critic, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, writes in the Weekend FT that this was a song ‘full of Americanisms…immortalized by a singer from Surrey with impeccable tones, the sort of voice that speaks of jolly good shows, not ‘sidewalks’.

So go downtown
Where all the lights are bright, downtown
Waiting for you tonight, downtown
You’re gonna be alright now, downtown

You say tomato

Indeed, the lyrics themselves are a cross-cultural mash-up, since all native New Yorker’s know it was more accurately about Midtown Manhattan, not downtown. It didn’t matter, Clark’s exuberant promise that ‘everything’s waiting for you’ downtown and there are ‘places to go that never close’ (in the city that never sleeps) hint at a naughtiness that the British, from Benny Hill to Mr. Bean, are uniquely suited to imply.

The combination of preppy British chanteuse and mean streets was so compelling that Sandi Shaw jumped on the bandwagon and cut her own version.

In Brooklyn

Other British singer-songwriters were not so coy. Four years after Petula sang about the bright lights of downtown, folk-rock musician Al Stewart crossed the East River to write explicit lyrics about his amorous conquests in Brooklyn:

‘Oh I come from Pittsburgh to study astrology,’
She said as she stepped on my instep,
‘I could show you New York with a walk between Fourth Street and Nine.’
Then out of her coat taking seven harmonicas
She sat down to play on a doorstep saying
‘Come back to my place I will show you the stars and the signs’
.
.
And its eighty degrees and I’m down on my knees in Brooklyn

(Al reports that Leonard Cohen complimented him on that last line. Well the guy who wrote so graphically about what Janis did to him in the Chelsea Hotel would, wouldn’t he?)

The Boxer

By 1970 New York had lost all traces of innocence. Like Al Stewart, Simon & Garfunkle sang of a very different city to Petula’s:

Asking only workman’s wages
I come looking for a job,
But I get no offers,
Just a come-on from the whores
On Seventh Avenue
I do declare,
There were times when I was so lonesome
I took some comfort there.

The evolution from innocence to experience in pop music is mirrored in the movies, from the 1960’s romp of The Apartment to Scorsese’s 1976’s Taxi Driver.

Downtown is situated in the America of bobby-soxers — a time when a cut-glass English accent was cat-nip to Anglophiles. It’s the era of early Mad Men, before it went pear-shaped and Don Draper got divorced and Roger Sterling got mugged.

By the late 70’s British musicians were more likely to sound like they came from South Carolina than Surrey, as Jagger does on Far Away Eyes.

Unplugged

smarthoneDenziens of the San Francisco tech scene are greeting the sun at a series of Daybreaker Digital Dextox dance parties in Mission District lofts. Before they emerge into the workday world to spend an average of 10 hours a day looking at the screens in their lives (PC, TV, smartphone and now watch) they leave their electronic devices at the door and joyfully pound the keys of old-fashioned typewriters and dance in the jingle-jangle morning with one hand waving free, far beyond the reach of crazy smartphones.

Back to the future

Elements of the Millennial generation relish moments of freedom from the anywhere, any device, any time connectivity that has defined much of their world since birth. In Noah Baumbach’s new film While We’re Young, the young New York hipsters Josh and Marina spin vinyl, write scripts on typewriters sitting at hand-made desks, and eat home-made ice cream. Nevertheless, private moments are captured on their iPhones and GoPro’s and they make full use of technology to shoot and edit their films.

Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain has made a conscious decision to completely unplug from technology once a week in what she calls “technology shabbats”:

We make a beautiful dinner on Friday night, then Saturday we have an amazing day doing things that don’t involve screens. We go outside, we do a lot of art projects.

In learning to reject a slavish adherence to the cocoon of technology, people are choosing to employ the products of Silicon Valley as tools to enhance life while finding ways to keep their boundaries intact. Of the many reasons to reduce your dependance on mobile devices the utilitarian (regaining 22 days a year of your life) are far outweighed by the ones that will improve the quality of your life (creating, conversations, self-worth, awareness, mental clarity).

The Digital Detox Manifesto makes a compelling case of disconnecting to reconnect.

Keeping it real

In a recent book reviewed in the Weekend FT, author Matthew Crawford writes in The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction about the way attention sculpts the self. FT reviewer Sarah Bakewell notes that

For Crawford, the Enlightenment started a process of separation that ended in our modern divorce from reality and from each other. Every time we thumb through our screens on a crowded train, we find an escape, but we betray our right to occupy the world and hone our skills in it.

The smartphone, she notes,

isolates us and helps turn us into what Simon Schama has recently called a “look-down” generation: always lowering our eyes to a representation of something not there…

A decade ago Sun Microsystems wanted to portray the future. They hired actors to carry mock-up smartphones and stand around the Embarcadero waterfront in San Francisco. They then superimposed a graph showing the rise in the number of phones in the world. Today, that picture is obviously a fake only because there are a half-dozen people not using a phone. It’s also outdated because a graph on the same scale would extend up through the conference center roof, as the number of mobile phone subscribers approaches the total world population.
Sun_Embarcadero

Feed your head

Perhaps it’s time for a new mantra to supplant the one made popular almost 50 years ago by Timothy Leary. Today, the time might have come to Turn Off, Tune Out, and Drop In to reality.

American ingenuity: Bicycle Blender Gypsy

Bicycle BlenderHats off to Mark Harris, a nomadic 70-year-old man riding across America on his bicycle volunteering his time on organic farms in exchange for room and board and living on a raw food diet.

With classic American ingenuity, Mark has attached a kitchen blender to the rear of his bicycle and whips up his next meal while cycling the highways and byways.

You can see Mark in action blending his next meal in the video below and follow his adventures on his Transcendental Art of Bicycle Blender Touring blog.