Finished Let IT Go, the autobiography of Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley.
Born in Germany to a Jewish father, as a child she and her sister were sent on a "kindertransport" to foster parents in England. She got in on the ground floor of the computer industry in the late Fifties at a time when most programmers were female. Noticing how many talented programmers were excluded from the workforce by marriage and pregnancy, in 1962 she started a company employing freelance programmers to work from home. Pioneering the ideas of flexible working and trusting employees instead of micromanaging them, the company grew into a highly successful company. Along the way she found that if she signed her letters "Steve" rather than "Stephanie" she got vastly more replies.
Eventually she handed over management of the company. She gave away a large portion of stock to employees, and sold the rest, after which she became one of Britain's major philanthropist, also taking on the role of ""ambassador for philanthropy".
Tragically her only child was afflicted with severe autism and died in his thirties. She had tremendous difficulties and suffering along the way: he was locked up in failing institutions, and the prevailing "refrigerator mother" theory of autism at the time blamed the mother for causing it.
Overall, a fascinating, honest and inspirational book. Well worth reading.
What I'm Watching
Saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg on disc. Curious 1964 French musical starring a young Catherine Deneuve. The entire script is sung in recitative dialogue, there are no "numbers" or arias where everything stops and characters sing to the audience about how they feel. The effect is a bit exhausting but powerful: there's a lot of emotional momentum which isn't dissipated by grinding the plot to a halt every ten minutes, and it feels less unrealistic than most musicals and operas.
Worth a look. Might be more tolerable even if you don't like most musicals. Or might be less tolerable because the whole thing is sung. Definitely either more, less, or as tolerable as most musicals though.
Saw the Schwitters in Britain exhibition at Tate Britain, concentrating on the few years around WW2 that the artist spent in Britain.
There's a lot of diversity to the works here: largely realistic portraits churned out for the money, impressionistic landscapes, some abstract sculptures.
The most artistically significant and the most hyped works though are apparently the 3D pioneering collages of found objects. I actually didn't like them: they didn't seem to have any interesting form or colour. I thought the portraits and the landscapes were a lot more impressive, and I really liked some of the sculptures, especially the eerily bulbous dancer and some of the stranger abstract forms.
Overall, definitely an interesting and multi-talented artist, well worth investigating.
Random thought on economics
For those who know a bit about economics, the thought is "Coasian transaction costs often take the form of bureaucracy". You can stop reading now, other people might need explanation.
Simple economic models usually feature large numbers of individuals in a market: they're not complex enough to have a need for corporations or firms. So a question is: why do firms exist?
The standard explanation is Coase's idea of transaction costs. Negotiating contracts takes effort. Having multiple individuals in a firm saves that effort: you don't need to have a contract and fee negotiation every time you say to someone: "write up that powerpoint into a document, please".
(There are other factors: economies of scale, influencing society/government for favourable treatment, cartels, but I'm not dealing with those here.)
Now, Girl B is fond of telling me how snowploughing works in Germany. There, all the municipal trucks are designed so that snowploughs can be attached to the front. When it snows heavily, they tell all the regular drivers "you're snowploughing today", and all the roads get cleared quickly.
That of course cannot be done in Britain today. The council will have outsourced all its truck driving and rubbish collection to private companies, who don't have snowploughing in their contracts. They've probably outsourced their vehicle supply to other companies anyway. It would be impossibly complicated to renegotiate all these contracts at short notice. Similarly, they can't just take a few hundred gardeners and garbagemen and janitors and say "today you're shovelling snow", because they're all outsourced too.
What this means is that organizations that rely on multiple levels of outsourcing cannot react quickly to unexpected events. Nothing can be done unless it's been thought about well in advance and written into the contracts.
In other words, Coasian transaction costs often take the form of bureaucracy.
I think this explains why there is often a lot of disappointment at the expectation that you turn slow-moving big organizations into dynamic, responsive, fast-moving networks of small outsourced businesses. Because Coasian transaction costs often take the form of bureaucracy, the result of this process is often an even slower-moving, more bureaucratic network than the big organization it replaced.
Politics: UK Conservative Party
There's been a lot of speculation lately about a leadership challenge to David Cameron, which I think is a bit silly. There are a lot of breathless comparisons to the oustings of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, but I don't think they hold. Getting rid of a leader after two or more full terms in office doesn't mean admitting failure: you can say that they had their time, but you now need energetic new blood; or that their policies were great for a decade but you need new policies now. Getting rid of a leader in his first term on the other hand is an admission of failure. There's little reason for the electorate to trust a party that admits to having made everything worse, especially if they start doing things the opposition has been calling for all along, like softening austerity.
I think another thing the columnists miss is a collective action problem: the self-interest of each backbencher is not necessarily that of the party as a whole.
It might be that the best thing for a party to win power, is to take a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If winning power for the party is the goal, the worse the polls look, the better this kind of strategy looks. By this criteron, if the party loses power, it doesn't matter how badly it loses by, so you might as well take risks.
But if you're an individual MP and your goal is to keep your seat, unless you're in the most precarious of marginals, you don't want a high-risk, high-reward strategy. You want a safe, defensive strategy that will keep the losses low enough that you keep your seat. If your party is in opposition but you still have your job, that's acceptable. By this criterion, it makes a huge difference how badly you lose: the worse the party does, the more likely you are to be out of a job.
So, the media like to talk up exciting possibilities like a leadership challenges. But the backbenchers are not necessarily keen on taking that risk. They might well prefer to cruise to a modest defeat for the party than to take a big risk, because that serves their individual interest.
A change of leadership is a high-risk strategy. But a lurch to the right is a low-risk strategy. By concentrating on mobilizing your base, you can limit your losses by ensuring a certain level of turnout. A lurch to the right isn't likely to result in an outright win, but it could prevent a landslide defeat.
So I think some columnists misunderstand the appeal of a lurch to the right: they portray it as an aggressive strategy to radically change the country, or an irrational response in denial of the reality of winning elections. I don't think it's either: it's a sensible defensive strategy to minimize the losses in a probable defeat. A lurch to the right isn't likely to help win a majority, but it might prevent an electoral wipeout.
I think this is also behind the backbench disquiet over the gay marriage move. This is a high-risk, high-reward strategy for a conservative party: might alienate the base if it goes badly, might attract socially liberal voters if it works. So the backbenchers hate this kind of policy, not because they particularly hate gays, but because they think it risks their seats. If it really backfires they might find themselves squeezed by UKIP to the right while still not gaining from the centre, and so face a huge loss.
So while I don't think there will be a leadership change, I think there will be a lot of mutterings about leadership changes, in the hope of forcing David Cameron into the lurch to the right that the backbenchers think will maximize their chances of individual survival.
Sci/Tech. Gender-swapped Donkey Kong. China's Internet censors can be bribed to block your competitors websites (Important because a practical example of how freedom might actually benefit capitalism). Google Reader to close by July, we live in a world of silos now. Mark Lynas on changing his mind about GM crops.
Politics. China Mieville, Richard Seymour & many more resign from Socialist Workers Party. Right wing has learned to deploy political correctness. Inspector Gadget blog disappears. White History Month. Will Self walks on Britain's flag-waving heartlands and far right. Beppe Grillo's 5SM is yet another right-wing cult from Italy. Muslim helpline reveals majority of faith attacks on women, more.
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