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FaceBook and the Fall of Europe May 31, 2012

Posted by markswill in Media, Navel Gazing, Politics, Schmolitics, That's Entertainment.

So little space, so much to blurt but as I promised, or rather threatened, a couple of days ago, ready-or-not here it comes.

You’re on FarceBerk right? Almost everyone I know is, even the technophobic and downright shy ones (like me). Some are heavy users posting details of their irritatingly mundane daily activities because they ain’t yet discovered Twitter, others simply regard it as an occasional digital promo-tool for whatever fabulous or intellectually laudable activities they’re up to (like me). But basically I hate it. Sure, it allows you to ‘keep up’ with friends, acquaintances and digital hucksters who from boastful references to your killer air guitar solos will bombard you with adverts for home recording software. Which is why young Marky Zuckerberg floated his brainchild on the NASDAQ last week, becoming even more obscenely rich in the process.

As we now know, the brokers concerned, Morgan Stanley, apparently fibbed about the true state of FB’s advertising revenues, pushed the asking price for shares from $28 to $35 and covertly issued 25% more shares than they claimed. Result? When the truth outed, FB’s share price plummeted and as I scribble the company’s valuation has dropped by some $25billion – yep, 25 billion – although it’s apparently still worth a chunky $79billion and I’m guessing the young snot who started it isn’t wailing too loudly. My underlying point is this: we are surely heading for another dot-com crash, but one that will make the Euro Crisis look like a Sunday afternoon game of Monopoly. Consider that FarceBerk is trading at a price-to-earnings multiple of 81, or 107 times earnings reported in the last 12 months. (The NASDAQ Internet Index average – which includes such heavy hitters as Gargle and fleaBay, is a more modest – but in my view, still barmy – 35 times earnings.) Which means that FarceBerk is gonna have to seriously ramp up its commercial exploitation of your daily doodlings if it’s to justify its revenue predictions.

Since virtually all of these outfits, and especially business-media sites like the equally egregious LinkedIn, currently have very limited ad. revenues, the unseemly rush to buy their shares is classic smoke’n’mirrors stuff, but the difference is that unlike the 2001 dot-com crash, technology stocks now represent a far greater slice of U.S. equities than they did then – almost 50% as opposed to 8% in 2001 – so the fall will be far more traumatic.

This matters for anyone saving for, say, a pension or who has a mortgage. Why? Because banks worldwide, and that includes the bank-of-last-resort, namely the IMF, have to rely on rising stock values to support their loans and debts unless like Britain (and pre-Nazi Germany), they simply print money. And if Greece abandons the Euro and goes third-world – which I bet it will – then the cost to banks holding Greek debt, which is virtually all of ‘em, will be massive. And if those stellar digi-stocks turn out to be nothing more than the Emperor’s New Suit of Woes… be afraid, be very afraid.

Which is why I read the interview with Christine Legarde in last Saturday’s Guardian with a jaundiced smirk. Sexy and bright though she is – in my book that’s horse’n’carriage territory – slapping down the Greeks for borrowing too much from central European lenders without visible means of support will only inflame an already irate population to vote in an anti-austerity left-wing (or neo-fascist right-wing), government next month who’ll demand a return  to the Drachma. Then all hell will break loose on the European markets, Spain, Portugal and possible Italy will follow suit, which won’t be pretty.

Undeniably ugly was Tony Blair’s performance at the Leveson enquiry last week during which he admitted that “if you fall out with a big media empire, then watch out because it is relentless”, yet with breathtaking impudence also claimed that there was “no deal” with R. Murdoch over New Labour’s European or media policies. Blair spouting lies is, of course, something we take for granted now, but I was still cheered by David Lawley-Watkin who managed to breech Leveson’s security cordon and live(ish) on television accuse our ex-PM of being “a war criminal” who was “paid-off” by  American bankers J.P. Morgan for supporting Bush Jnr’s ruinous Iraq invasion. It was good to see Teflon Tony rattled by his own deceit, if only momentarily.

Leveson is of course turning into an endless saga that threatens to inure us to the magnitude of the venal relationship between politics and the media. In this it is much like the constant unfolding of atrocity in Syria which no amount of hand-wringing by NATO and world leaders will bring to an end, and this because of course the West has too many vested interests in not intervening militarily, especially the Israelis and their Yank backers/apologists.  How Lord Leveson can ever come to a conclusion about the incidence of newspaper ‘phone hacking, political bribery by-any-other-name and all the rest is beyond me, but I fear the slaughter in Syria will continue unless and until Russia and China find that the Assad regime they so loyally support has lost its strategic value as an oil producer and Iranian-proxy. Only then will the hand-wringing stop and the gunships go in.

On a happier note – perpetual ray of sunshine, that’s me – all you book burners will be delighted that James Daunt, CEO of Britain’s last remaining bookstore chain, Waterstones, announced last week that it will start selling Amazon’s Kindle e-reader. Only months ago Daunt denounced Amazon as “a ruthless money-making devil” which threatened the very existence of the printed word, so has he caved into what some of my friends and many an online forum bleater see as inevitable and if so, how long will his bricks and mortar book browsoriums™ remain in situ?

Three years, maybe? By which time the piffling amounts cash-strapped councils save by closing their libraries will have removed yet another source of print’n’paper literature. Proof? At 2am on Tuesday police-protected renta-a-thugs protected emptied Kensal Rise Library – opened by Mark Twain in 1900 – of its stock whilst protestors looked on helplessly. You have been warned.

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Crumb of Comfort May 28, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, That's Entertainment.

Grappling for the relevance or otherwise of yet another unasked for rhetoric-fest, never mind its subject matter, the best I could come up with were a few odds and sods. Still, as the highly sexualised secretary in Thomas McGuane’s latest novel exclaims after an unexpected bout of jiggery-pokery with his adolescent hero, at least it’s been “never a dull moment” since I last spewed forth. So, some random incidents, observations and travelogues…

Went to Paris last week to do some art and socialising and art apart, it’s so refreshing to visit a city that’s still motorcycle friendly: park on the pavement, ride like the devil in jeans and  t-shirt, make as much noise as you like. And plenty of girls at it, too. Great. As for the exhibs, well the Degas Nudes at the D’Orsay weren’t entirely my cuppa, but you gotta admire his draughtsmanship when the chips are down, even more so Matisse at the Pompidou which was far more impressive, especially the photographically rendered revelation that he executed dozens of versions of what he had in mind before reaching his conclusion. Spent some time at the Pomp’s permanent collection which includes some fantastic stuff, especially your Cubists, your Fauvists and your Post-Modernists, although as you traipsed through the rooms the combinations seemed to get barmier and barmier.

But the hit and main purpose of the trip was the Robert Crumb retrospective at the Musee d’Art Moderne. If you don’t know Crumb, then shame on you for he was the pre-eminent American underground comic artist of the 1960s and ‘70s whose wry exaggerations perfectly skewered the cultural conceits of those times. Having lived in their country for the past 20 years, the French have done him justice with a massive assemblage of original comic strip artwork, illustrations and indeed influences which was a true delight.

Robert Crumb woos the girl of his dreams

All his great creations were here, Mr Natural, Honeybunch Kominsky, Fritz the Cat etc., plus his entire cartoon version of the Book of Genesis published in 2009 and four years in the drawing. My only crit of a show that needed a good two hours to absorb is that the latter, a masterpiece of graphic exposition, was last on the menu by which time and despite its greatness, I was too arted-out to clock every page.

After a restorative pot of tea overlooking the Seine and Eiffel Tower – it’s a great gallery in a great location – I explored some of its permanent works which, like the Pompidou’s, were pretty impressive if somewhat arbitrarily hung. Then the return Eurostar broke down just before the chunnel eventually, and after an infuriating confusion of announcements and silences, going backwards to Lille to be shoved onto a spare for the journey home three hours later. However as compensation we were offered a free return ticket anytime in the next year: not a bad trade-off, especially as having just concluded that if you ain’t got kids or a high maintenance spouse, and thankfully I have neither, then art is the most important thing in life. And so I’m going to go and study art history in Paris, for which the gratis Eurotart tickets are a good start.

Or at least that’s what I was thinking for the final 24 hours of my visit and the first 24 after I got home. Now… well maybe not. Art is incredibly important, though, and back-to-back gallery hopping among the greats like this reminds you how transformative and uplifting it can be. It certainly, and here I should issue an Arty Bollocks Alert, consolidates the certainties that so much else in this vale of tears™ lacks. Attachments to people you’ve known for decades, or even just met, are almost as important, but they can evaporate upon an emotional whim, or a motorway pile-up, leaving you bewildered and distraught, but great art is always there.

Trouble is, I can neither paint nor sculpt and can barely string together a few words, and I think I’m a bit too old to give it all up and live in a Parisian garret whilst I try to make sense of it all for no other purpose than, well, to make sense of it all. And in the ongoing absence of any income, I think some hideously expensive dental work is a rather more pressing need.

As for writing, well I took along the new McGuane novel which, as it somewhat shockingly hasn’t found a U.K. publisher, I rather sheepishly bought online, though not I hasten to add, from Amazon.

So back to McGuane, who is for my money arguably the best living novelist, and certainly along with Richard Ford – who is published here – the best American. In a gently sardonic sentence McGuane can say more about the emotional contraptions we erect for ourselves than many writers can in a chapter or indeed, a blog, and end it with a comic punch that’ll have you laughing out loud. His writing has a sparse cadence and (more arty bollocks ahoy, I’m afraid) lack of showyness that belies its anthropological depth, and Driving on the Rim is the best of his more recent works. But if you want to start somewhere, try Panama, which I have to read at least once a year to keep sane… and teach me some humility as a scrawler.

And here I am nearing my self-imposed 1000 word maxima with so much more to spew forth – thoughts on Leveson, FarceBerk’s floatation, the Euro implosion, Waterstone’s faustian pact with Amazon and the joy of new fencing to name but a bit – but so little confidence in your continued tolerance that I’ll leave it ‘til next time.

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A Man Needs A Shed May 3, 2012

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

As per my last outing, this scrawl owes much to other, more original authors in other, more original media. Much, but not everything, so let’s get the trite and personal out of the way first, and what could be more apt in both regards than a man and his hobbies?

I, for example, spend far too much money and time than is sensible for a man of my means futzing around with old cars and, periodically, old motorcycles. And in anticipation of a balmy summer and, more pragmatically, to cling onto the column I’ve scribbled these past couple of years for a classic bike mag whilst not actually owning a classic bike, now is one of those periods. And of course as I rode this 27 year-old, yet scarily fast Honda back from the very nice man in Evesham who’s hobby it had long been, it started raining. As it has done virtually ever since: so much for summer larks on two wheels.

But as is the way with such pastimes, inability to use the bugger in the manner intended – or more disparagingly, being a fair-weather biker – hasn’t prevented me from making plans to upgrade the suspension, re-jet the carburetors and maybe buy some panniers so I can pop over to Southern France and visit my biker pal David as I’ve been threatening to do for years now. Same goes for my aged Lancia and Citroen, although the latter is less of a hobby and more of a ‘daily driver’ (pause for hoots of laughter in North London), but all of them are to varying extents, strictly an indulgence.

This was brought home to me once again when I came to tax the Lancia this week – I only use it during the Summer which as mentioned, we still live in hope of – and figure out whether I can trust my patchy mechanical ability (and patchier patience) to adjust the valve clearances, replace the brake pads and torque-down the cylinder heads or pay for someone who knows what they’re doing to, well, do it.  Or should I forgot all this expensive mechanical nonsense and concentrate instead on more cerebral pursuits like the R. Crumb and Degas exhibitions that are tempting me to Paris this month, or maybe go and visit a couple of seriously ailing friends in foreign climes whilst they’re still clinging on, or buy a few hundred quids-worth of all the hardback books I keep meaning to read before they become so much digital Kindling, or acquire all that unowned Frank Zappa and Bruce Springsteen vinyl whilst it’s still – just – affordable… you can perhaps see where this is going? (And BTW, Bruce’s new ‘Wrecking Ball’ album is a cracker).

Yes, I’m sure you know people with much more useful or more intellectually, spiritually, hey, even morally worthwhile ‘hobbies’. But when there’s so much crap going on around us, and even when, as I’m sure most of us are, we’re having trouble maintaining certain standards of creature comfort, physical health or moral self-respect, should an oil-pressure warning switch for a long obsolete Italian car or a first edition of Thomas McGuane’s ‘Panama’ take precedence over keeping the radiators on an extra hour or two of a sodden, chilly May evening? In other words, are ‘hobbies’ a useless waste of time?

SHREDDING THE COMPETITION          Beats me, and the same might be said of John Naughton’s piece in last Sunday’s Observer which refreshingly (for him) asked “Has the internet run out of ideas…?” Naughton, one of those infuriatingly uncritical middle-aged champions of virtually everything electronic and new, argued that like other “gloriously creative, anarchic technologies” before it, e.g. telephony, t.v., film, the interweb is now governed by a few massive corporations whose initial geeky enthusiasms and certainly ideals have been subverted by the dubious codes of “shareholder value”.

“But perhaps,” he argues, “the biggest curb on innovation is that the technologies that might serve as the springboards for next-generation surprises are increasingly closed and controlled.” He cites Facebook – the Wal-Mart of the interweb – “busily creating a walled garden in which the only innovations that can arise from it are ones allowed by (its) proprietors. The same applies to the tethered devices we know as smartphones and tablets.”

Naughton is right, and as I occasionally delve into divisive, self-serving ‘conversations’ about the future of print vs. digital publishing on the arguably pointless business forum that is Linked-In, it’s clear that whilst the former may be dying out fast, the latter is disappearing up its own fragmenting commercial rectum because FarceBerk, Google, Apple (yes, Apple) and the rest damn well aren’t going to let anyone else into their playground.

The other likely eventuality, which admittedly Naughton also mentioned, was darkly posited by Andreas Whittam-Smith in a piece I clipped from The Independent back in February 2011. Hurling the much-lauded baton of ‘digital democracy’ then being heralded as empowering the so-called (and with hindsight, rather hollow) ‘Arab spring’ back into the black hole where it had long resided, Whittam-Smith noted the formation of Iran’s cyber-police and China’s hundreds of thousands of cyber-snitchers (the latter of course with Google’s acquiescence). Surveillance of websites and increasingly, mobile phone and tablet traffic is relatively easily mounted and, as he notes, “In Saudi Arabia, citizens are encouraged to report ‘immoral’ sites for blocking. The beauty of this approach for repressive regimes is that they can claim they are merely responding to public opinion.”

Well of course we Brits don’t inhabit such a regime, at least not unless the civic glue that binds us is washed away by the economic strictures of the posh boys and their banker pals who currently rule us, but I think I’ll slope off to my metaphoric shed, stick my head in a metaphoric bucket of sand, and see if I can get a few more horsepower out of the Honda.

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