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A blog for people who don't read blogs

Great piece on the role that Standard & Poor’s played in the global financial crisis and the Australian court case that’s helped to expose it.

And it deserves to be said that the design of the new Global Mail article view is terrific.1 There’s an increasing number of websites I don’t even bother using Instapaper for any more and the Global Mail is one of them.

  1. I still have problems with their main page, mostly because of my longstanding aversion to the way that ‘front pages’ of news websites are laid out. 

Lukas Mathis nails it.

Alec Baldwin’s voice interviews people. I don’t recognise most of the people on the list but I don’t think it really matters because Alec Baldwin’s voice.

Pissing People Off

When I was in university one of my roommates brought over a friend of his. The friend was incredibly brusque to the point almost of rudeness. Afterwards, as an apology of sorts for the behaviour, my roommate explained that his friend had decided he was happy with the amount of friends that he had and didn’t bother trying to make any new ones. He didn’t even go through the motions society encourages us to perform in those types of interactions.

At the time, I thought the guy was an arsehole.

Last Thursday I unfriended over 200 people on Facebook. These included people I knew from primary school, high school and university.1 I did this with some trepidation. What would people think if and when they discovered I had unfriended them? Would they no longer like me? Would they think I was an arsehole? In spite of these concerns, I told myself I needed to press ahead. I did so for two reasons.

First, the accumulation of friend detritus on Facebook had made the service next to useless for me. I realise Facebook has added smart lists (or whatever the thing is that is like Google Circles but automatic) but it didn’t help. My newsfeed was filled with crap I didn’t care about. I want to make clear that I realise that it was not crap to the people posting it. And, indeed, the characterisation of the material as ‘crap’ is intended as a reflection on me, not on them. I perceived it as crap because it was from people who weren’t really friends. They were ‘Facebook friends’; people I had friended, either out of a common experience we had both shared (sometimes decades ago), or out of a feeling of social obligation. I hadn’t had the balls to risk upsetting them (which is what I feared might occur). And it wasn’t out of any high minded sense of empathy on my part. It was entirely egotistical: I didn’t want them to think less of me.

The second reason was because I decided this was practice. Despite not having a clear idea of how I plan to get there, I still nurture the hope that I am going to do something to really make a difference in the world. And I’ve come to the realisation that people that do that need thick skins. They need thick skins because they’re going to piss people off. That’s because if you want to do something that makes a real difference you are going to upset some people. Which is part of what makes it hard and why no one will have done it until you show up. Moreover, it’s going to be a lot harder than unfriending 200 people on Facebook. But this is a place to start.

In the unlikely event that I both unfriended you and you’re reading this: I should have been honest earlier and I am sorry for wasting your time. I don’t want to waste any more time and I hope that makes sense. If you think of me as an arsehole as a result, well, I can’t say I wouldn’t think the same way but possibly not for the same reasons. I sincerely wish you the best in whatever it is you’re doing and I hope the fact that I’m not there taking up mental space lets you focus on the people who really do matter (and if you didn’t expend any mental space on me, well, then I guess I probably just did us both a favour).

I plan to do something that will have a little more impact at the end of the month. I intend to write about that here too.

  1. A process Facebook makes incredibly difficult to do. Not only is there no mechanism I could discover for mass-unfriending but, when using the web interface, every time you unfriend a person (a procedure that entails at least three clicks), the entire list of friends is reloaded with all of your friends in a randomised order. From go to whoa took two hours in case anyone else plans to do likewise. 

Craig Mod, who has written some of the best stuff about publishing in the digital age, has a crackerjack post about publishing and magazines.

A Letter to John Siracusa or: Why Executives Are Never Fired

Dear John

I’m taking your advice that if I have a comment in response to something you’ve said on your podcast Hypercritical, the best thing to do is to write a blog post about it so that other people can read it and benefit from it.

In the latest episode, you discussed, among other things, Scott Forstall’s departure from Apple, his role as an ‘advisor’ and why people at a certain pay grade are never ‘fired’ as such. I’ve seen a number of people wonder in particular about the decision to keep Forstall on as an advisor and think I have some experience that may be able to shed light on this.

As background, up until the beginning of this year, I worked for a law firm in Australia where one of the things I did was prepare employment contracts, occasionally at the executive level. Obviously the laws in Australia and the United States are not exactly the same but I think the similarities are enough that I can explain what’s going on here.

First, in respect of the role of advisor. Executive level contracts will typically have ‘gardening leave’ provisions that allow a company to continue employing an executive but prevent him or her from coming into the office. During gardening leave, the employee continues drawing a salary but is otherwise cut off from the company. You typically want to do this with fired executives because they will have detailed knowledge about the plans of the company (at least up until the point of firing) and the longer the executive is on gardening leave, the staler this knowledge becomes and the less useful it is to a competitor. Gardening leave provisions are usually included in addition to employment restraints that seek to restrict an executive from going to work for a competitor (or confidentiality agreements that try to achieve the same goal) but as these can often be very difficult to enforce (particularly in California), at least ensuring that the fired employee is out of action for the gardening leave period means that they don’t know everything the company is planning on doing.

Given Forstall’s position in Apple, particularly with respect to iOS, I am sure that this is a huge concern for Apple. As a result, I would expect Forstall to have exactly zero input in the direction of the company. He’s being called an advisor to be polite but I very much doubt he and Tim Cook will speak until the gardening leave period expires. (Speaking of which, we don’t have any information about how long this period would be. Dan suggested that it’d be up as soon as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve but I would think Apple would want to keep Forstall on the payroll for as long as they possibly can.)

The next point was about the reasons why a company rarely, if ever, admits an executive was fired. I’m not knowledgeable enough about Californian law to know for sure but my guess is that this has nothing to do with respect for the former employee and everything to do with fear of being sued. A statement that a person was fired could be considered defamatory/libellous depending on what was said and the circumstances in which it was said. Of course, this is true for any announcement of a firing but the reason it’s not usually an issue with junior level employees is because: a) they’re less likely to have the resources to sue; b) even if they did sue, it would be difficult for them to prove there was much damage to their reputation since they probably don’t have much of a reputation to be damaged. For executives, particularly at Forstall’s level of visibility, it is far easier for the company to simply say they’re moving on.

Hope that helps clear up a few things and thanks again (to Dan as well!) for producing such an enjoyable programme.


I cannot shake the sense that I am overreacting to this interview with an official ‘commentator’, paid by the Chinese Government to help direct public opinion, but reading it makes me feel intensely uncomfortable.

Those Crappy Japanese Tech Companies

An article in the Washington Post by Chico Harlan on the decline of Japanese once-great tech companies got a fair bit of attention over the weekend for reasons that aren’t clear to me.

The ‘fundamental problem’, according to Harlan, is that Japanese tech companies no longer seem able to create hit products people want. Before we get to whether this is actually true, what are the products to which he is referring? When did Sharp or Panasonic or Hitachi (Toshiba, Sanyo, Casio, Fujitsu…) ever create hit products? Sony used to create products people had to buy (Walkman, Handycam, Discman, PlayStation) and Nintendo made some popular video game consoles. But Japanese companies generally? Reliability and price were what they used to churn out.1

Even if we allow that Japan was once the land of the hit product, is this the fundamental problem? Harlan seems to be confusing the symptom with the disease. A product is a hit because it’s successful with consumers. But whether consumers flock to your product or not isn’t something you as a company control: what you control is what the product does and how much it costs.

As Harlan meanders through the travails of Japanese companies he does touch on these points but he doesn’t point them out particularly well. Allow me.

The first problem Japanese companies are facing is that software is replacing hardware and allowing general-purpose devices (smartphones, tablets) to replace a swathe of single-purpose electronic devices (phones, cameras, music players, game consoles, etc). You can kind of fault Japanese companies for not being better at software but that criticism only really has much zing to it if you pretend that hardware and software are basically the same thing so how hard is it to do one if you can do the other? The answer is really hard. After all this is hardly restricted to Japan. Basically everyone is crap at software (Motorola?). Even software companies are often crap at software (Microsoft?). Recall that all these general-purpose devices are essentially running software either from Apple or Google.

The failure at software explains why Sony has lost its edge2 but if you want to understand what’s going wrong with Japanese technology companies generally it’s not that they can’t make hit products (since they were never doing that in the first place), it’s that they’re no longer able to make money making TVs, home entertainment systems, kitchen appliances, etc, etc. And the reason they can’t do that is because they can’t match the prices of competitors in China, Taiwan and Korea (competitors who either didn’t exist or who were a joke two decades ago). Analyst Michael Gartenberg admits as much in the piece but any suggestion that the fault may not be with the companies themselves is not left to stand for very long. Harlan immediately follows up Gartenberg’s explanation that cheap Asian competitors now produce ‘good enough’ products with:

“Japanese companies,” Gartenberg added, “were busy defending old business models that the world simply bypassed.”

Huh? What business models? No idea! I guess if we’d critically analysed this statement we may not have had time to compare market cap estimates.

The fact is that almost every non-software tech company is being creamed at the moment (eg. Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, Motorola, Nokia). Japan’s tech giants may be faulted for not moving into software but writing software is completely different to manning factories. You’d be better off moving into solar panels, if you ask me.

  1. Let’s all ignore the fact that Japanese camera makers, such as Canon and Nikon, seem to be churning out products people are pretty excited about. 

  2. I think one can legitimately criticise Sony for failing to properly appreciate the importance of software but only because Sony, after creating the PlayStation in 1994, had plenty of time to realise this. Moreover, Sony is strong in basically every other area required to create great consumer products (design, marketing, content). 

The devil has many forms, some designed to deceive the young, some designed to deceive the old and serious. If it is the devil that tempts the young to enjoy themselves, is it not, perhaps, the same personage that persuades the old to condemn their enjoyment? And is not condemnation perhaps merely a form of excitement appropriate to old age? And is it not, perhaps, a drug which – like opium – has to be taken in continually stronger doses to produce the desired effect? Is it not to be feared that, beginning with the wickedness of the cinema, we should be led step by step to condemn the opposite political party, dagoes, wops, Asiatics, and, in short, everybody except the fellow members of our club? And it is from just such condemnations, when widespread, that wars proceed. I have never heard of a war that proceeded from dance halls.

(via Aaron Swartz.)

Can we all just agree that Matt Taibbi is the master of outrage at the U.S. political-financial complex?