Previous month:
June 2020
Next month:
September 2020

Fame in the 20th Century

Clive James was old when I was young. A man who smoked so many cigarettes per day you would question whether he trusted any air he could not see. Even when seated he looked stooped. A damp sack of flour with an Australian accent.

Sometimes the sack of flour wore a tuxedo jacket and sometimes it wore a suit. Tuxedo or suit the cut never looked right on TV. He had the body shape of a Bolshevik leader. Take away the impish smile and he looked like he would have had a good chance to be elected to the chairmanship of the Soviet Union after Lenin dropped dead.

But he had the smile and that look, and it made him a better broadcaster.

My plan to do something today that did not involve reading a book, anything at all, hit a snag as the outer edge of Storm Ellen battered us with rain showers and blanketed us with fog. The weather service reliably informs me that disruptive and potentially damaging winds are inbound as the storm makes landfall. Oh goody.

Looking for a Plan B that did not involve my buttocks meeting the reading chair once again, I noticed a Clive James book in the unread pile and remembered that I saw one episode of James’s “Fame in the 20th Century” back in the 90s and never completed the series. So today was the day I did that. Broadcast in 1993 and covering 250 people across the twentieth century James grapples with fame and the rise of the celebrity. His quips are fast, his barbs are deep, and his analysis is sharp.

He points out that early in the 1900s people were famous and the advent of mass media did nothing to increase their fame. Then fame and celebrity became a profession and elevated those which it probably should not have. You may be disgusted with reality television or it may be a guilty pleasure, but it is not anything new. Marie Curie was famous, but she was not a reality star. Elizabeth Taylor was famous, and she most certainly was.

Some of the film clips here are fascinating and well curated. The licensing requirements alone prevents a rerelease. The conclusion of the series is glum but has a ring of truth. For the people to whom fame is not a profession, those regular people who James refers to as “amateur actors”, fame is like an Aztec human sacrifice. Paraded and fêted for a while but it ends with the crowd cutting the subject’s heart out. Those who are famous are there for our use and the most they can hope for is that we will use them well.

Watching the series, I realised that I liked Clive James because he had an approachable intellect. His body of knowledge was deep and wide, and his brain seemed to operate faster than everyone else’s but he took the time to have a conversation with his audience. A conversation of equals. I hope at the end of his life he felt that his audience had used him well.


Samsung Rising

Another staycation day, another book. This book opens with exploding Galaxy 7s and Samsung’s paralysis, evasion, deception, and eventual recognition of a dangerous flaw in their flagship handset. Imperial rulers prefer to tell you what the truth is and Samsung’s opinion at the time of the burning handsets was that there was no issue. It was just the pro-Apple press stirring up trouble for them.

Imperial is accurate when describing the management of Samsung. In Samsung Rising the author does a good job of examining the political and dynastic intrigue of an organisation known locally as the Republic of Samsung. It's a Republic in name but a monarchy in operation. Corporatism is a cornerstone of South Korea, members of the leading chaebol (large family owned business conglomerates that dominate Korean industry) routinely finding themselves dragged through the courts only to have sentences commuted and pardons issued. The brand name corporations that they control being symbols of national pride to regular people.

South Korea’s economic success is a product of the chaebol working hand in glove with the government of the day. In Samsung’s case its start goes back to the company’s granite faced founder, Lee Byung-chul. Having lived through Japanese colonialism in Korea, B.C. took inspiration from the Japanese zaibatsu companies. The post-war economic miracle economies of Japan and Germany were South Korea’s template for industrial development. While everyone else was trying to copy the United States, B.C. ensured that Samsung would be a family controlled vertically integrated monopoly pervasive throughout South Korean life. He would import the best ideas from Japan and Germany, then make them Korean.

Betting big on semiconductors B.C. looked to rapidly scale Samsung Electronics. During the PC revolution of the 1980s Samsung Electronics looked like an also-ran but Steve Jobs showed up on its doorstep looking for memory chips for the Dynabook concept (A tablet computer). This was the beginning of the long and tortured relationship between Samsung and Apple that continues to this day. Samsung being both a key supplier for the iPhone and one of its most dangerous rivals with their Galaxy line of handsets.

The development of Samsung’s Galaxy forms the backbone of the book. Samsung's ongoing failure to grasp software development and the need of "The Tower", the brain of the Samsung octopus, to control every aspect from the top down being covered in detail. It is a compelling read. There is a horrific sequence halfway through Samsung Rising where the company’s US marketing team are summoned to South Korea for a Samsung global marketing meeting. The small, by Samsung standards, and unruly marketing team from Texas had been sticking it to Apple and carving out the Galaxy brand in the US as the defining line of Android handsets. They expected to be recognised for their work.

Recognised they were. The US team was asked to stand, and their Korean leadership told everyone in the room to clap for the US team as a sign of encouragement because they were the only group present that was failing the company. Every metric said otherwise with customer sentiment and sales of Galaxy handsets soaring in the US, but the message was clear. You do not shine brighter than the imperial court back at the South Korean HQ.

This was a good read about a company whose internal operation I knew nothing about. Samsung has stumbled badly during their last dynastic transition of power from father to son but it would be a mistake to underestimate them.


I’m Thinking of Ending Things

The weather today has been abominable so I finished the latest staycation book much sooner than I had expected. The problem I am now faced with is that "I’m Thinking of Ending Things" is a psychological thriller/horror novel that is built on one twist. If I discuss the twist the book becomes pointless. Even an attempt to discuss it in a tangential way would cause the novel to diffuse into the air. So I will avoid it entirely. 

Like all good psychological thrillers the book begins by making you uncomfortable from the start. There is nothing gruesome here, things just feel distorted and that distortion is unsettling. You keep waiting for the floor to drop out from under the female protagonist and for things to start going wrong. You know it is coming and in a way she does too. It’s just a matter of when and how.

The majority of the book is focused on a girlfriend and boyfriend having conversations during a road trip to the farm of the boyfriend’s parents. It is dark and snowing, the cold outside the car is oppressive and the landscape at night time narrows to a point surrounding their vehicle. The conversations they have are intellectual, but he is a know-it-all and more than once I recoiled the way she does when their conversations take a negative turn.

As a reader we get extra contextual information, we are privy to the female protagonist’s internal monologue. She has been in this relationship for a number of weeks and she is not convinced it is going to work out. She is thinking of ending things. Were I in her position I would have already.

Looking at him as he is driving she considers his flaws. Flaws anyone would discover were they to make a life with another person. She wonders what it would be like to listen to the same person digest food for years to come. After sex she observes his body with detachment, noticing details that make him less attractive to her. The odds are good that this relationship is going nowhere.

Right now the realtionship is taking her to his parents farm and on the way we learn she has been keeping a secret from him. She's getting phone calls late at night, the caller only leaves messages. Not abusive messages but strange ones. The caller starts leaving her messages on the commute and the story most forward from there.

With any fiction book the bottom line of a review is if the juice was worth the squeeze? Was it worth the reading time spent? In this case I would say yes. I did not find the denouement to be revelatory but it was an uncomfortable story that was written in an engaging way. 

Would I sit down and read it again?

Probably not.



Drew Barrymore is Harley Quinn if Harley Quinn decided she wanted two children and a house filled with pets. After the slog of yesterday's staycation book it was time to breeze through something and Barrymore’s memoir “Wildflower” proved to be a breezy and sometimes funny read.

Her high energy humor aside, there are sharp edges here. She recounts several asshole stunts that will make you cringe, they now make her cringe, but scattered in between these are examples of how different her situation was. Hollywood having thrown her away, there is a memory of her spying on people at the laundromat so she could learn how to wash and dry her clothes. Ruining them she drags the sodden bleach stained mess back to her dump of an apartment, where she was living alone on a diet of take-out meals and cigarettes. Despondent, she recognises that she is a school dropout who does not know how to do anything and for all intents and purposes her career as an actress is over. She was fourteen.

There is a sadness in that chapter that drives her forward in many of the others. She slowly and carefully rebuilds her shattered career, assembles a family of friends, starts reading voraciously and over achievement in cooking and domesticity becomes a driving ambition. I would not be surprised if bedsheets in the Barrymore house are changed three times a week and any meal that comes out of the microwave for dinner is seen as a personal affront.

There is an insight close to the halfway point that to me explains both why she wrote the book and why it is written in the anecdotal non-linear fashion that it is. Barrymore decided that more than anything she wanted to be appropriate. Having been a washed-up child actress; a teenager who ended up in rehab; and a tabloid fodder exhibitionist with a string of male and female lovers, all of that had to go if she wanted to take her life to the next point. Her vagabond father and incapable mother were not appropriate as people or parents, but she makes the choice that she will be.

The clothes stay on, the film roles become more wholesome and the behavior in public becomes more controlled. Her private life becomes private. This book and its presentation are an exercise in not shaming herself to her daughters while explaining the past to them. When they come asking questions they will get a detailed description of the lessons she has learned. With surface level descriptions of the situations she learned those lessons from.

The strategy here is to not let her children get away with any of the things she got away with. Believing she should never have been in those situations in the first place.


Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts

Another staycation day, another book from the unread pile bites the dust. This time it was a deep dive into armed conflict resolution in Talking to Terrorists: How to End Armed Conflicts.

Jonathan Powell, chief of staff to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, is one of the clearest thinkers on negotiation with armed groups that I’ve read. That said, his writing here is a slog to get through. The book is anecdote rich and upfront that negotiation is an art rather than a science but this could have been leaner and more readable if his insights were not buried deep inside the examples.

To Powell there is no conflict so insoluble that it cannot be unlocked through talking. He points out that Governments always talk to terrorists, even when they say they do not or will not. Negotiations resulting from these talks might fail, but any progress can be built on incrementally. A failure today, yesterday, and last year does not preclude success tomorrow or in five years.

It was negotiation that brought a peaceful end to the apartheid state of South Africa. Negotiation created a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, it brought about the disbanding of ETA in Spain and FARC in Columbia. The road to these solutions only revealed itself when both sides, no matter how distasteful they found one another, talked in private.

Opening with a discussion of what we understand to be modern terrorism, with no pride do I mention he states it was developed by the Irish, it is Powell’s belief that the path to peaceful resolution always starts with private talks.

Over the course of the book he builds a convincing argument that this is the case, engaging with the counter arguments around never negotiating until terrorists are about to be annihilated. It is Powell’s assertion that time again a new terrorist threat emerges and it never reaches the point of collapse governments like to think it has. Security, military and technological solutions are deployed to combat the terrorists and while a lot of people die none of those solutions solve the problem. The terrorism mutates and carries on as the terrorist acts are the most visible symptom of another underlying set of problems.  

This book was published seven years ago but it is the author’s conclusion that to make progress on the dissolution any armed group, be their doctrine what the West would call rational or apocalyptic, you have to sit down with them. All terrorist groups begin with unreasonable demands, even the ones that state their ambition is to wipe out a competing ideology entirely. What matters in the end is the terrorists ability to park the extreme position and talk about on everything else around it. It is there the path forward to peace begins.

Overall, an interesting read but hard work to dig through.


Sumner Redstone: The King of Content

My plans for the current staycation are to put a dent in the unread book pile. The first book out was timely since the subject died this week. 

Recently departed media mogul, Sumner Redstone, was an uncompromising man. The King of Content by Keach Hagey covers Sumner’s early life and business moves but has enough about his tumultuous personal life to be gossipy.

The advantage of the gossip is that this book reads better than a set of business cases, which it could have been as there are remarkable successes and crushing failures in the deals he made throughout his life. Covering Redstone’s early days, we find a mob connected father and a neurotic mother nurturing Sumner’s formidable intellect. This intellect was welded to a ruthless competitive streak and the combination of both proved to be explosive.

Powering him through the most prestigious school in Boston and into Harvard in short order Redstone breaks Japanese codes during World War II; becomes disillusioned with practising law; side-lines his brother to take over the family drive-in movie business; and then wages all-out war against other media companies.

Scooping up Viacom, MTV Networks and CBS Redstone consolidated several prestigious media assets under his control. Control being Redstone’s internal drive. Business associates and family members whom he cannot control are discarded. Sometimes with regret, but not too much regret. Redstone cries a lot as he’s sticking the knife into a family member or a long-time business associate, but he never cries for too long.

The arc of Redstone’s media empire follows the arc of his life. As he began to physically decline so did his investments. Mistakes were made. There was an obsession with videogame studio Midway and after investing $800 million in the beleaguered company it was sold for $100,000 and the investment written off when it was clear Midway could not be turned around by his team.

Viacom passed on acquiring Marvel, with whom their studio Paramount had the original distribution deal for the Marvel cinematic universe. That was a costly mistake when in subsequent years Paramount released box office bombs while Disney made billions from the Avengers.

The decline was not just financial. Redstone was a man of voracious sexual appetite and it is a matter of record that he left sexually explicit voicemails recounting a foursome he had the night before with the legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans and two women. He would have been 90 at the time and a daily user of Viagra.

Throw in numerous inter-family power struggles for control of the fortune, an old man with a string of young gold-digging girlfriends, everyone getting slapped with lawsuits and you have an accurate synopsis of his final years.

Every good story needs a hero and in this story his daughter, Shari, has been cast in that role. She battles not only her father, his string of girlfriends and his sycophants but also the Board of Directors at Viacom and CBS. After all the bloodletting she stands victorious a top a pile of corpses and has as much control over the now merged ViacomCBS as her father ever had.

Sumner frequently stated that his ambition was to live forever and never carve up the Empire he had built. It strikes me that his daughter is much more pragmatic and for her corporation, ViacomCBS, to survive it will have to buy other companies or itself be sold to someone larger.

 Either way as in business and in life, control over others or yourself doesn’t last forever.