Friday, 27 May 2016

Columbus, Monsanto and the monopoly peril

A decade or so ago, I was finishing my book about the relationship between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, and their race for America (you can buy it here as an ebook these days I’m glad to say).

I became convinced that the real story there was the friendship between Cabot and Columbus and their joint decision to corner the market on the western route to China, which they both believed they had discovered

It is impossible to prove this, and I’ve gone into the evidence for it elsewhere. But their key innovation wasn’t so much the ships or navigation of any of the usual detritus of exploration. It was their new kind of monopolistic contracts, their intellectual property on the route.

If they had succeeded, they would have taken a slice of the proceeds of every trading voyage to the New World for the foreseeable future. The court case that finally decided on Columbus’ contract lasted until the eighteenth century, so he nearly made it. It would have made them the richest men in history.

It is a surprisingly modern story. In the centuries that followed, doing business meant making things or servicing things. Increasingly, and partly thanks to the internet, companies are learning unwittingly from Columbus and Cabot. They are trying to take a slice of every transaction – not to make or sell, but to own the infrastructure that makes selling possible in every market.

Google and Amazon are doing that by providing a platform that everyone has to use. Visa is providing the electronic means of exchange. Others like Vodafone and Paypal are attempting something similar, though with less success, via the payments system. Other retailers, like Tesco, aspire to sell everything.

These things matter because they are done in the name of free trade, but the truth is they will make real, Liberal free trade quiet impossible without their permission.

It’s funny when every event, especially in business, gets widely reported and nothing seems to escape the online hoover, then something of real significance can go by virtually without a mention.

I’m referring to the decision by Amazon to try to corner the market on private label retailing, undermining the struggle to raise money by any entrepreneur involving e-commerce.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it demonstrates graphically how innovation can fail to produce an outpouring of entrepreneurial activity, as it should do – if the platforms are controlled by monopolists.

For another thing, it explains a little why the IT revolution appears to be leading us down a path of serious economic consolidation, and for the same reason: if it is dominated by a few controlling companies, then the benefits will not be spread about.

Then, what should come along but the revelation that the chemicals company Bayer wants to buy the GM seeds conglomerate Monsanto, a merger which will allow one giant company to dominate global agriculture.

Again, the BBC witters on about how the science of GM food is becoming clearer and safer, when you wonder why neither the commentators nor the scientists understand where the threat lies: in the monopolistic ownership of seeds and seed technology.

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Monday, 16 May 2016

Why disasters get covered up, and how to stop this

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any now that I’m no longer a regular writer of it) will know that I also have a minor side-career as the author of short books on naval history.

That’s why I have a new book out, about the sinking of the cruiser Indianapolis in 1945. It’s called Lost atSea.

Why am I so fascinated by naval history? Well, the answer is that my grandparents lived in Portsmouth and I learned to love the green smell of the harbour as I watched the navy creep in and out past the Ramparts.

But there is another reason, and it is why I feel free to write about this also in a blog about politics, public services and the future. Because naval history is a kind of laboratory for studying the history of how systems work.

That is why the Indianapolis story is so relevant to modern policy. It is worth reading about for a variety of other reasons too.

The Indianapolis carried the components of the first atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan to Tinian Island, from where it was to take off.

When it was torpedoed on the way back again, it constituted the biggest loss of life in any wartime disaster for the American navy, in any war (over 900 were killed).

It is also said to be the biggest recorded attack by sharks on human beings, but that has remained controversial since the days of the 1977 film Jaws.

The point is that the Indianapolis sank, torpedoed by a Japanese submarine, in just twelve minutes. It was sailing without an escort and the distress signal was never confirmed to Guam, so it was ignored and later suppressed. For nearly five days, the survivors drifted alone in the Pacific, without food or water, surrounded by sharks.

The loss of the ship was announced by the US navy just as President Truman announced the end of the war.

Embarrassed about his blot on their heroic war record, the naval authorities mounted a cover-up which led to the execration and court martial of Indianapolis’ captain, Charles McVay (he was rehabilitated, many years after his death, with the help of the submarine captain who had sunk his ship).

I wanted to set out how bureaucracies can do this, and what can prevent them. Because they do, and even enlightened institutions do, like the BBC and the NHS. They cover-up, blame the victims, close ranks and dissemble, just like an officer in the South Yorkshire Police. The question for us is how we can prevent it.

The answer is always the same and Karl Popper set it out just as the Indianapolis disappeared below the waves. It is to have the kind of society where frontline staff and ordinary people can challenge the hierarchy or entrenched monopolies that rule them. That is how societies and organisations learn.

It is also one of the reasons why the Second World War was won – because tyrannies and centralised, authoritarian bureaucracies can’t learn. It is the cornerstone of modern Liberalism.

You can read Lost at Sea as an ebook (for £1.99) or as a paperback.


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Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Dylan Thomas hails the Steyning Festival

Dylan Thomas has very kindly returned at my invitation from the Hereafter, where he is running a small bar, to write for the Steyning Festival blog – looking forward to the imminent festival launch.

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and ocean green, the grassy lanes, silent and the hunched wood limping invisible up to the slow, green, tennis-elbow green, rabbit-and-stoat bobbing Downs.

The houses are blind as Colonel Cat, sleeping in his bifocals; the Steyning Centre snoozes, St Andrew and St Cuthman stir in their sleep, while Christine Aubrey – the festival chair – dreams fitfully of tickets and insurance.

Hush, the babies are sleeping, the grammar school and primary school, the Cobblestones, the vicar, the Gruffalo and the Steyning Bookshop are sleeping. Mr Bunce is dreaming of teapots. The Co-op is dreaming of butter. The Art Trail is snoring peacefully. You can hear the dew falling.

Listen. It is night moving down the streets, the tarmaced high street – where the ‘Star’, the ‘Chequers Inn’, the ‘Norfolk Arms’ and the ‘White Horse’ tilt and ride, their tills silent, their cushions exhaling. You can hear the grass growing on the recreation ground, the sleep of birds on Chanctonbury Ring.

Time passes. Come closer now. Only you can hear the sound of the Big Top waiting to be unfolded, the electricity generators waiting to be switched, the mobile toilets waiting for flushing, the silent disco relaxing its chords, the authors and musicians practicing their introductions in their sleep, the town clock ticking. Only you can hear and see the book groups, the choirs, the mice in Mouse Lane, the echo of future laughter and happy queues and cocktails and the ache of future sunlight on the grass, as they waft through the green swathes of their dreams.

The Steyning Festival starts on 21 May. You can read the full programme here http://www.steyningfestival.co.uk/whats-on

** Don’t miss the Community Parade that launches the festival at 11am on Saturday 21 May. http://www.steyningfestival.co.uk/whats-on/community-parade-19

Monday, 9 May 2016

Why the NHS is swamping its own A&E

Fancy going to Accident and Emergency with conjunctivitis. I mean, what kind of feckless, ignorant type would do that?

That was the sort of attitude I felt from the handful of medical staff I encountered there early on Saturday morning. It wasn't even bad conjunctivitis, and actually it wasn't even mine: it was my nine-year-old's.

But when your child's eyes swell up in the early hours of Saturday and they are tearing at them with their fingers, you have to do something. It isn't as if you can wait until Monday morning for the surgery to open.

So what were my options? The GP surgery here was firmly shut. Not even an hour for urgent queries.

What I know I'm supposed to do is to dial 111 and they will deal with this kind of minor health issue that is urgent but not crucial. The trouble is, they wouldn't. They told us that, to get any kind of attention, "it has to be life-theatening".

The lady on reception at the accident department at the local hospital was extremely helpful and told me this was nonsense. The nurse told me I would have to stay there in order to get a prescription. In the end, I stayed for two wasted hours, as the sick and lame filled up the waiting room and jumped the queue ahead of us - as clearly they should have done.

Then someone came in with very serious conjunctivitis, her eye swollen to vast proportions. This happened to coincide with my parking meter running out, so we legged it.

I was rescued by a community pharmacist, God bless him. I should have gone there to start with, but have had so many disapproving conversations with pharmacists in recent years telling me all the things I shouldn't do to treat my child but explaining that they were nonetheless powerless to help.

I could also have told the 111 service that it was an allergic reaction, but why should I have to lie?

But let's just analyse this for a moment. Because, when accident departments are overwhelmed, these issues are important. The real problem here was the failure of the 111 service contracted out to Harmoni (part of Care UK) to do their job properly, which is to replace the GP service at weekends.

I have no problem in principle with contracted out services, but note that the contracts tend to be won by companies whose main skill is the delivery of target data to their commissioners. Since commissioners - like central government policy-makers - are completely blind to the difference between good data and good services, this is a problem.

The difficulty isn't therefore so much the privatisation of the NHS; it is the concomitant growth of American contract culture, which sets out complex deliverables which can be blurred - broadening the definitions and narrowing the mandate - so that they can maximise their profit on a tightening budget.

Hence you get a 111 service which simply replicates the emergency service, which is utterly pointless and succeeds in spraying extra costs around the system.

I have every sympathy with the government wanting to shape a seven-day a week NHS. But I find it strange that they are fighting to the death with the hospital doctors, when the real impact would come from making primary care work seven days a week effectively without humiliation.

I speak as one who has experienced the Croydon out of hours service, run at one time by a subsidiary of Virgin, where the service shared an atmosphere with the Raft of the Medusa.

This the government has signally failed to do, and has failed since the Blair years and the new GP contracts brought in so disastrously in 2004.

What we need to happen is for Whitehall to wake up to the big gap between the data and the service quality - a kind of Emperor's New Clothes distinction. But what can possibly make them aware of that?



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Friday, 6 May 2016

The way we live now

When I started publishing on my own account at the end of last year, I don't think I realised how satisfying it would be to publish other people. This, is of course, a symptom of a writer's self-obsession.

I was explaining to an old friend of mine what I was doing and, quick as a flash, she said she had a novel I could publish, if I wanted. Did I want to read it?

I suppose the slightly flippant way I was introduced to the idea rather blind-sided me about what I was about to encounter. The truth is that her novel The Men is rather extraordinary: it is sparse and humorous and it conjures up this wild, fearless heroine, and it follows her progress through thirteen men before reaching some kind of conclusion.

Fanny Calder herself (for it is she) describes it as "hedonistic, feminist anti-romance".

It is certainly that, but it is many other things too - mildly orgiastic, definitively erotic, darkly frightening, and there are also rather a lot of wild parties. It is above all a portrait of modern urban life, rootless and occasionally desperate. It pins down something important about the kind of lives people lead now, without drawing conclusions.

I don't think anyone has written about it in quite this way before.

So I can't really take credit for discovering Fanny as a writer. She introduced me herself. Nor can I claim to have changed her life by publishing her book. But I have found publishing The Men extremely satisfying.

This is what the first review on Amazon says:

This is a quite extraordinary book. The stripped-down language matches the raw, openness of the unflinchingly honest narrative. A naked tale of urban human connections, told darkly, with both cool detachment and warm wit. You're drawn into the twisted spell of the wonderfully wild parties, recognising scenes we've all seen played out (in our naughtiest dreams?!), and catching glimpses of one's own behaviour in the complex but compelling characters that stalk off the page and into your imagination. It is a liberating, sometimes challenging, but deliciously evocative read, crafted with great passion and aplomb. An assertive debut and arguably essential reading for the feminist hedonist in your life.
I hope people buy it (it's only £1.99 on Kindle) if only so that I can see if they agree with me.

You can also buy it as a paperback and read what Fanny herself wrote about the book.

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Tuesday, 3 May 2016

A statue on Chanctonbury? If only...

I used to be a planning journalist. In those days, I covered the case of the fifty foot shark built on the roof of a terraced house in Oxford. I’ve written about the swordfish plunging through someone’s garage in Crystal Palace. I’ve applauded the way that a law pushed through by the Thatcher government to allow stately homes was used to allow eco-villages in the woods.

But when I heard about the plan to build a 100-foot statue of The Redeemer, a copy of the one that towers over Rio de Janeiro, right on topof Chanctonbury Ring, I thought for a moment of all the money I could earn writing about it. Selfish, I know.

It might even be possible, I thought, with the permission of the landowners (the Goring family) and from the South Downs National Park authorities for a temporary structure. There are far less inspiring temporary marquees put up on the Royal Parks in London all the time.

But since no foundations have been paid for so far, except media ones, I have to assume that the Steyning Festival’s idea is not going to happen. A pity: someone should build it.

Chanctonbury is in the zeitgeist for two reasons now. First, because it features as the crescendo of Robert Macfarlane’s successful book The Old Ways, where he describes an eerie – not to say downright terrifying – experience he had sleeping on the top of the hill.

I’ve experienced something related myself, though milder, up there too, so I take his description of a non-animal scream that circles the crest of the hill seriously.

The second thing to say about Chanctonbury is that, even if it isn’t the site for a temporary statue of Christ, it will still preside over the Steyning Festival when it opens on May 21 – with people like Craig Charles, Cressida Cowell and Calum Chase (and that’s just the Cs).

The truth is that Steyning is a strange, otherworldly place, nestling in the South Downs, at one remove from the hurly-burly of modern life, a precious stone set in a sea of green, a demi-paradise, if not quite  Seat of Mars. But once every two years, for the festival, it explodes into the cultural life of the nation.

I’m now writing one of the official Steyning festival blogs and will be accelerating the production of these from now on. So if you want to know what’s really happening around the festival, I can’t promise to cover everything. But that is certainly going to be a good place to start. I'll provide a link when I know what it is.

You can see the full programme here.

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Monday, 25 April 2016

Why the Left needs to embrace the monarchy

Let's just take a king at random: King Arthur. It was he who was supposed to have, like so many politicians, taken exception to anything which detracted from his image. In this case, it was the legendary head of Bran the Blessed, buried on Tower Hill in London, the magical properties of which protected the nation from invasion.

So that everybody could see that it was his efforts alone which held back the Saxons, he had Bran's head exhumed.

I was reminded of that story, as I so often am, thinking about some of the Facebook carping about the Queen's 90th birthday last week. Because the monarchy has a secondary, somewhat mystical function, which is little discussed or understood: it keeps us safe from fascism and authoritarian mysticism.

I consider myself of the Left, but I can't say I find much pleasure in my fellow lefties' complaints. The monarchy provides us with colour, extravagance, fun and a sense of mystical importance. There will be puritans among us who prefer life without maypoles, theatres and monarchs, but I'm not one of them. I find the dour disapproval of the monarchy in principle very hard to understand.

I know there is the old Charter 88 idea that monarchs imbue us with the habit of deference. In fact, I have a feeling the opposite is true. I feel more equal with David Cameron as a fellow subject than I would if he was president. I feel more equal with the inhabitants of Buckingham Palace than I would if they were sponsored by McDonalds after an election campaign backed by Murdoch. We can be citizens as well as subjects.

There is certainly a problem about prime ministers borrowing the powers of the monarch. That is a separate issue altogether, and doing away with the monarchy won't solve it.

But let's get back to Bran the Blessed (as distinct from Brian Blessed, a very different personage). You can't help noticing that nearly all the former imperial powers of Europe which got rid of their monarchies became fascist states - Germany, Italy, Spain and many of those in central Europe too. The exception is France, and I'm not absolutely sure that is an exception, but is certainly complicated by having two rival royal and imperial versions.

Why is this? Because former empires are subject to some fiercely nostalgic, not to say atavistic, undercurrents. There are dangerous, sometimes militaristic, yearnings for former greatness which attract dangerous and unpleasant people.

But monarchies dissipate this energy safely. People wave flags instead. They owe allegiance to the living monarch, not to imagined past glories. Monarchies inoculate former empires against authoritarianism.

Of course, there are some on the puritanical Left who want to protect the nation from fascism by their own campaigning power alone. I'd prefer not to take the risk.

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