Monthly Archives: February 2006

The not-so international world of books

I distinctly remember the thrill in the days of going into a good bookstore when traveling outside my home country. Coming from London to a great book town like Berkeley gave me the chance to hoover up all the juicy American books that had not yet been published in Britain.

Amazon changed all that, if you overlooked the shipping fees. Suddenly I could read about something recondite but desireable in the New York Review of Books and immediately satisfy my craving.

Still, one of the goals of my trip to London last week was to snap up two British books that have not yet been published in the US. It would be wrong to say that I couldn’t wait to get my hands on these books (if that were the case, I would have turned to, but I was champing at the bit, and early reading suggests I was right to be so eager.

Tom Holland’s Persian Fire is subtitled “The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”. I devoured Holland’s Rubicon, about the Roman Republic, a couple of years ago. I’m only up to Darius, so haven’t reached the central story of the book, the war between the Persians and Greeks, but it’s a great read so far, and a salutary tonic to a Greek-oriented perspective like mine.

The fact that I waited until my trip to obtain Christopher Logue’s Cold Calls must show that I’ve become patient in my old age. Logue’s modern rendering of Homer’s Iliad is one of the great achievements of contemporary poetry to my mind. When I read the first few volumes of his War Music in the mid-90s (thanks to a classicist friend‘s recommendation) I was absolutely floored. “How does Logue compare to the original?” I asked. “It’s pretty good, but still nowhere close,” he replied. That’s what convinced me to study ancient Greek at the University of London: how could I survive without being able to pick my way through the original in some way, if Logue was “nowhere close”?

Mmmmm, Camembert

One of the downsides of living in the US is the lack of unpasteurized cheeses. I don’t think there is an epidemic of disease in Europe because of Camembert, but the US has put up the barriers to such “health risks” (though I can recall reading about a hearty band of New York foodies that smuggle in unpasteurized cheeses with some regularity).

But tonight after dinner my wonderful hosts brought out a cheeseboard. Nothing dramatic, but even the supermarket-bought Camembert de Normandie was utterly delicious. That’s something I really miss.

The view from…

I’ve spent most of the past 28 years in London, but my visit there this week promises to be a bit strange.

It’s the first time my family has returned since we moved to Berkeley in July. We’ll have an opportunity to see family and friends, and catch up on developments in our old neighborhood (perhaps that should be neighbourhood).

But we’ll definitely be visitors, the first time that is true for me in nearly three decades. Maybe everything will be crystalline and familiar, but I suspect it will seem just that bit opaque. I write that because I believe in the last seven months we’ve become just a little bit Californian, and a little less Londoner. I’ll see.

At a guess, posting to Davos Newbies this week will be irregular at best.

The new Scott McNealy: all sweetness and light

In today’s Financial Times, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy raises the banner of the sharing, caring corporation (subscribers only).

Share: blend internal assets with those outside. That means sharing things you value, such as intellectual property, best practices, employee time and even your thoughts, with tools such as blogs, podcasts and wikis (communal web pages). In doing so you lower barriers to entry and encourage people to notice and take an interest in your business.

Build trust and foster communities: adopt a transparent and shared approach to business. New business opportunities will arise that you, the trusted player, will be in the best position to take advantage of.

Engage and collaborate: seize opportunities to listen to and interact with the communities you create. Solicit input and recommendations. Respond to requests. Close the gap among your critical audiences, influencers and decision-makers across your organisation and you will be rewarded.

Shifting your business to take advantage of the sharing strategy is not easy and will not happen overnight. That said, the communities you seek to develop will recognise your efforts and help you if you are straightforward with them. Instinctively, they will trust your intentions and respond, guiding your organisation through the process.

I like and approve his approach (and its emphasis on the importance of trust echoes my discussion with Edelman yesterday). What strikes me, however, is how different this Scott McNealy is from the Scott McNealy who so pugnaciously strode the Davos stage in the boom years of the late ’90s. It would have been hard to find a more aggressive, take-no-prisoners, caustic character (Steve Ballmer never came to Davos) than that old McNealy.

Corporate circumstances change, and certainly the global environment changes. It’s good to see that some top executives can change as well.

Lose control of the message

I went to a presentation today of Edelman PR’s annual Trust Barometer. It’s a helpful gauge of how corporations, NGOs and media are seen by opinion leaders in a number of countries.

Two things I thought particularly notable were that “a person like myself” is the most credible spokesperson in most countries. Rightly, Richard Edelman, the company’s CEO, thinks this means that employee blogs can be hugely influential and trusted.

The second conclusion I liked was his advice to CEOs: “Give up control of message in favor of credibility through dialogue.”

Appropriately, Edelman himself writes a particularly good, forthright CEO blog.

A hunting we will go

In my naivety, I looked to this morning’s New York Times to fill in the details of the Cheney hunting accident. More fool I.

In an article that concentrated as much on the jokes of television comics as the substance, Elisabeth Bumiller took expert hunting advice from the following: two people who were on the hunt with Cheney, and Cheney chum and former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson. Is it any surprise that they all blamed the victim, Harry Whittington, and not Cheney?

Other sources do much better. Knight Ridder’s account makes clear that it is a fundamental rule of hunting that the shooter is responsible for knowing what is in his line of fire. The San Francisco Chronicle interviews a disinterested expert, who confirms that basic rules of hunting safety were ignored.

Of course, I learned all this yesterday from blogs that covered the story far more thoroughly than any of today’s papers.  Firedoglake was particularly stellar.

The one consolation is that the story that has real legs, the seeming cover-up of the accident, is being covered everywhere. Lots of history to show that the cover-up is more important than the initial story.

What Monsanto missed

Andrew Leonard has an insightful analysis of the WTO ruling on genetically modified organisms in Salon (if you’re not a subscriber, you have to watch a brief ad to access his post).

There’s a big difference between the days of the Green Revolution and now. Back then, governments, academic researchers and philanthropic institutions took the lead in the research and deployment of new technologies for boosting food and crop production. Today, the private sector, globally dominated to an extraordinary degree by one single company, Monsanto, sets the pace.

This fact alone has to be profoundly disturbing to anyone who cares about issues of transparency, informed debate and the decision-making process. Monsanto is not particularly interested in developing crops that address the direct needs of poor and hungry small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. The vast bulk of its profits derive from the production of just four crops — soybeans, maize, cotton and canola — whose harvests are not generally consumed as food by humans. And yet, Monsanto lobbyists are busy shaping (and weakening) national bio-safety laws all over the world. Who has the greatest incentive to introduce genetically modified organisms into the biosphere without taking the time to truly understand their long-term impact? Who is the least interested in upholding the so-called precautionary principle — a fundamental part of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which is part of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity?

I think he has left out another important element.

Monsanto now is a far less powerful company than when it first tried to introduce GMOs into Europe. That’s because it didn’t understand the overwhelming public opposition to GMOs. I lived in Britain at the time and the government was — and remains — largely pro-biotech and pro-GMO. But all the government support possible couldn’t overcome the mass public dissent.

Some of that public dissent was ill-informed, I believe. Some of it was just a gut reaction against science and technology, an attitude that is far more widespread in Europe than in the US. Some of the reaction was because of an understanding that the precautionary principle had largely been overlooked. Importantly, another large factor in the reaction against GMOs was that Monsanto and the government were focused solely on the benefits to producers (higher crop yields, less use of expensive pesticides, etc) and didn’t make clear what, if any, benefits would accrue to consumers.

In Europe, I think it’s likely the result of the WTO judgment will be very little change. That’s because European consumers, rightly or wrongly, do not want products with GMOs, just as they don’t want American beef filled with hormones. As many of the news stories on the decision made clear, its effect will be felt largely in other parts of the world.

Incidentally, I think on balance GMOs will ultimately be a good thing for the world in terms of improved production, not least in sub-Saharan Africa, where drought-resistant strains will prove valuable; reduced use of pesticides; preservation of topsoil; and ultimately the development of functional crops that, for example, include added vitamins or valuable medicines (cholesterol lowering cereals, for example).

Before the GMO storm blew up, I interviewed Robert Shapiro, then CEO of Monsanto, about many of these issues. Shapiro was undoubtedly one of the most intellectually curious and thoughtful CEOs I have met. But he is long gone and the company he ran is a shadow of its former self. That’s largely because they completely failed to understand how the public viewed their products.