Monthly Archives: January 2007

Two bagels and a championship

Outside work and family, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time playing tennis. During my years in England, this took the form of often-drizzily Sunday mornings at a cosy but decidedly ramshackle club and the occasional poorly organized match in the Surrey league. Life is certainly different in California. My club has 10 well-tended courts and play is dominated by practice and matches in USTA leagues. In the fall season I had the temerity to play on four teams and captain a fifth.

The payoff for all this effort came last weekend when I traveled with my combo doubles team to the district championships in Los Gatos, near San Jose. (Combo doubles is a competition where players of different standards combine to make a team. Our team is a 6.5 combo, meaning players of 3.0 and 3.5 ratings play together.) Our team was the cinderella of the districts: we had scraped the fourth and last qualifying place in our flight, which covers the East Bay. There we had successively beaten the number one and number two teams to make it to the districts.

I could write a shot-by-shot account, but I think that would bore even me. Here’s the nub: my fantastic partner George and I went undefeated through the three matches of the weekend. Another pair, Chris and Herb, won two out of their three matches. And even though we couldn’t find a winning third pair, we won the districts. George and I had a particularly delicious symmetry: we opened our first match with a bagel, winning the set 6-0, and we closed our final match with a bagel. Out with a bang.

It would be easy to deride this kind of competition as a rather wistful attempt by 40- and 50-year olds to recapture a mythic youth. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But more it really was a weekend of highly directed physical and mental effort (I think at least 70% mental) with great people, both on my team and our opponents.

By the way, there was even a blogging angle to the districts. My favorite tennis blog, Peter Bodo’s Tennisworld, pointed last week to a new blog on tennis.com: a couple of club players would be chronicling their progress over the year. I took a look and the man, Joe Pambianco, wrote about preparing for the district championships in Los Gatos. I emailed my team about the coincidence. My teammate Chris read Joe’s blog carefully, which turned out to be a good idea. Chris and Herb played Joe and his partner on day one. Joe had written about what he needed to improve. Guess which shots Chris picked on. Joe records his account of the weekend here.

Opening up Davos

The World Economic Forum has announced a number of good initiatives to increase the transparency of its famous Annual Meeting in Davos. They will aggregate blog posts about Davos, invite all participants to blog on the Forum’s own weblog, increase the number of sessions webcast and “wikify” the Open Forum that runs alongside the Annual Meeting.

I still have a soft spot for the Forum and certainly the Davos meeting itself. A number of civil society groups have long criticized the Forum for its focus on global business. The Forum is an organization of member companies, most of which are giant global corporations. So it’s natural that the corporate voice is heard, and heard loudly in Davos. But far more than the critics acknowledge, other voices have always been sought and welcomed — trade unions, civil society groups like Greenpeace and Ashoka, emerging voices from the poorer parts of the world. I suspect the few days in the Swiss Alps is the most significant direct exposure many of the corporate titans in attendance have to these alternative voices.

Today’s announcement of various newer ways of opening up the Davos conversation is another good step in the right direction.

Note for newbies to Davos Newbies: I started this blog in 1999 when I was in charge of the Davos program. It was intended to provide an insider’s guide to the marvelous, complex beast that is the Davos Annual Meeting. I left the Forum in late 2000 and haven’t been back to its summit since 2002. But I’ve retained the blog’s title out of inertia, pride and a still-strong belief that there is value in bringing together observations and thoughts on a bewildering variety of subjects.

Liberal economics and anti-liberal economics

The New York Times also brought a rather dubious article on so-called Macho Dems, the new breed of tough, masculine Democratic politicians. I say dubious, because I thought the Republican talking point, post-midterm debacle, had been extensively debunked. The Democratic party has always housed a wide range of characters from plenty of macho pols to the limp-wristed, smell-the-flowers types we prefer out here in the Bay Area.

But what really got my goat in Ryan Lizza’s article was the following sentence: “Ideologically, many Macho Dems are culturally conservative and economically liberal — making them odd ducks in a party that since the Clinton years has been defined by cultural liberalism and Rubinomics.”

Shouldn’t someone at the Times understand that Rubinomics is all about economic liberalism? Shouldn’t someone know that there is a whole stream of thinking about economics that uses the term liberal in a very specific way? I think what Lizza was trying to say is that some of these newly elected politicians are anti-free trade. In other words, anti-liberal.

Pseud's Corner

The British magazine Private Eye, which I’ve never liked, has a feature called Pseud’s Corner where they display pompous, bloviating writing.

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review had what must be the worst lead sentence ever allowed on the front page of such a distinguished publication.

“Time passes, and what it passes through is people – though people believe that they are passing through time, and even, at certain euphoric moments, directing time.”

Walter Kirn wrote that incomprehensible epitome of pseudish writing in his review of Robert Stone’s Prime Green. I couldn’t get past that first sentence to find out what he thought.

The world's plummiest podcast?

Through the Oxford University Press blog, I find that the Dictionary of National Biography podcasts. I listened to the podcast on the Bee Gee’s Maurice Gibb. Perhaps I’ve been away from England too long, but I thought the narrator had an almost comically posh accent. His accent is the kind of thing you only encounter listening to archive recordings of the BBC from 30 or more years ago. Particularly given the pop content, it could have passed as a parody.

Sense on CEO pay

An interview with Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s long-time business partner, was published by the Los Angeles Times on New Year’s Day. After the Home Depot abomination, Munger speaks tremendous sense:

What makes CEO pay so difficult is that only a few of the people who are earning these huge amounts are actually worth it. Everyone else figures they have to keep up or recognize that their guy isn’t as good. Who wants the recognition that the company down the street has a remarkable CEO, but we have a mediocre klutz?

I like the idea of high pay for people who are really worth it. The problem is that most of them are not. Every mediocre employee who rises through the ranks to become CEO thinks he should retire rich. It’s crazy.

Munger also reckons that any hope of improving the situation will be hard won. He has a very dim view of a lot of American executives: “In my opinion, not enough executives have gone to jail.” (Via Kevin Drum)

The rewards of failure

The resignation of Bob Nardelli as CEO of Home Depot suggests that widespread public opprobrium does sometimes reach the executive suite in US businesses. Nardelli was hailed in some areas for his cultural transformation of Home Depot. The influential Ram Charan described Nardelli’s work in the April 2006 Harvard Business Review in thoroughly laudatory tones.

But other observers weren’t so happy. The New York Times brutally exposed the gap between the company’s share performance and Nardelli’s personal rewards in May. (The always-excellent Felix Salmon took me to task at the time for suggesting that share price should be the measure of a CEO’s performance. Fair enough. But Felix and I agreed that by any measure Nardelli’s compensation was outrageous.) In the ensuing flap, Nardelli led an annual general meeting that was Stalinist in its suppression of dissident views. It’s a sign of how insulated US executives are that it has taken over seven months from that fiasco for Nardelli to go.

When I wrote about Nardelli before I hoped that “a reaction against the contemptuous and arrogant behavior of chairman and CEO Robert Nardelli will be a turning point in the outrageous rewards grabbed by so many corporate chieftains in the US”. I was pessimistic, but maybe the worm is turning. By the way, don’t feel too sorry for the guy. His leaving package amounts to $210 million.

The cost of living

John Kay: “David Landes, the New York-born economist, famously described how Nathan Rothschild – possibly the richest man in the world in 1836 – died, in spite of the costliest medical attention available, from an illness that could today be cured by antibiotics costing a few pence. What does that tell us about the cost of living?”