Archives for category: business
In William Gibson’s novel The Peripheral, we meet a class of people, the klept, who have more money than they could ever use and play games with large swaths of humanity, often to the death. Gibson didn’t have to reach far for models; examples of the kleptocracy are all around us. The damage they do is not quite at the scale of Gibson’s klept only because Gibson imagines hundreds or thousands of timelines they can use for their playgrounds. (The chapter entitled Parliament of Birds (pdf) gives a good idea of what the klept are about.)
I’ve been considering writing about our modern klept for several weeks now and just when I think there’s nothing worse that could happen, I only have to consider the headlines for a moment. The most public members of the Klept, or maybe just their public representatives, are (not surprisingly) Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and (new member!) Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. When I thought I might be able to let this idea go, go on to writing something else, I saw this BBC headline: US and Brazil agree to Amazon development.
The world is quite literally on fire from Alaska to Siberia to Australia to, indeed, the Amazon. Instead of finding ways to protect these places for future generations, these so-called leaders are letting them burn so that the land can be exploited for oil and agribusiness. Bolsonaro’s very clever – if he doesn’t do anything about the fires, he solves one issue that he’s publicly declared a problem: the native populations of the Amazon basin. If they no longer have a forest in which to live, they’re no longer in need of any kind of protection. The other advantage I’ve read about is that he can then allow monoculture farming of in-demand commodities such as soybeans. (This becomes attractive given how Trump has buggered up the Chinese market for American soybeans. Trump’s trade war with China is one that probably could use some delving but it makes little sense to me as yet.)
And if neighboring Venezuela is anything to go by, there’s probably oil to be drilled as well. (Note that the vast majority of Brazil’s untapped oil holding is found in a region off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, rather far from Venezuela.
Man looking right forking dollars into his mouth while much smaller man has pennies to eat. Caption: When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it. Frederic Bastiat, French economist.

I know that equating fat and eating with greed is problematic, but we’re dealing with the oversized share of wealth consumed by the few at the expense of the many. I think this illustration addresses that pretty well.

And if we let Alaska burn, it may be easier for the oil companies to get into ANWAR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – a protected area that contains some desirable oil reserves). At the moment there are fires throughout central Alaska, but not in the northeast corner where ANWAR is located. Difficult to access Siberian reserves are also going to be easier to get at once the place burns. (Yes, I’m being terribly reductive. The fact that these fires are starting because of record high temperatures caused is not lost on anyone concerned, though.)
This isn’t exactly the klept in a nutshell. But the high-stakes games being played with the lives of large numbers of inconveniently located people form the heart of what the ultra-rich and the world leaders who front for them are about (and have always been about).
The thing with Johnson and the mess that Parliament is trying to clean up is that Johnson’s a really minor member of the klept. Cursory web searches suggest that his net worth is about two million pounds. More than I’ll ever see in a personal bank account (unless things go really tits up, Zimbabwe style), but in the grand scheme of the very wealthy, not very much. So why is he pushing for no-deal Brexit so hard? The short answer is that the klept in the UK stand to lose a lot of money when the new EU Anti-Tax Avoidance Directive goes into effect next year. Pretty much all of the large-scale folks who have pushed Brexit stand to lose a lot of money. Johnson, it seems, is mostly just a front for those folks.
There’s more to address regarding the American klept, including folks like Mitch McConnell, but it’s going to have to wait.

Rob Cox in Reuters argues that ‘China Does It’ is a bad antitrust argument (6-minute read). But before I get into the arguments the biggest companies in the US and Europe make for maintaining their monopolies, I want to talk about how we are able and not able to occupy space in society.

I’ve had two discussions in the last few days that I want to connect. In one, my friend was complaining about nudity at Dutch spas. Nudity is generally the norm at spas in the Netherlands unless it’s a rare kledingsdag (clothing day). My friend complained that one should be able to wear a swimsuit or not. The issue is not one of prudishness, but that my friend has a surgical scar that a swimsuit hides. It’s not even that the scar is problematic. It’s the threat of unwanted intrusion in what should be a relaxing space that gets tiresome.

Another friend is an expert in her field and occasionally gives free practical courses associated with it to the public. And what is the first question raised in a recent class? Something about how and where she gained her expertise, or her interest in the subject at hand? No. It was ‘Where are you from?’ The adult child of Japanese immigrants born and raised in Los Angeles. Not that that part matters. Again, it’s the impertinence – and the unspoken question of whether my friend had a right to occupy the space at the front of that classroom.

These two experiences play into a larger narrative of how the spaces occupied by people are no longer personal. They probably haven’t ever been, really, but we had a couple of decades where it seemed that they might be. If one wasn’t paying very close attention.

Where to I fit into this narrative? As a cisgender, adult, heterosexual presenting (I’m out as bisexual in most areas of my life, but you can’t necessarily tell that by looking at me) white male, my right to occupy space is rarely questioned. Nor is most expertise I claim. I’m also Jewish which you can probably tell from my physical profile. I’m somewhat removed from the racism I’m about to discuss, but only just. It’s a topic for another entry.

On a good day, however, I might classify as an ally to those who face harassment and verbal and physical violence simply for being.

The right to occupy space. I read a tweet sometime in the last few days that read something like ‘A survey of transgender people asked “What is the one thing you would do if you had a day during which no one would judge or comment on your appearance?” The majority of respondents said “Go swimming.”‘ This Vox article (approx. 5-minute read) on a 2016 survey doesn’t have that nugget, but it tells quite a lot about how difficult it is to be trans and occupy space.

All of this is leading up to a connection I want to make to that Reuters article on big business in the west and China, but I’m going to toss in one more thing about swimming and occupying space. About twenty years ago I dated a black man who grew up in Detroit in the 70s. In response to a suggestion we go to the beach, he laughed me off, saying “Negroes don’t swim.” He didn’t share any of the history of the difficult efforts to integrate swimming facilities that continues. The New York Times ran a long article on the subject just last summer. In short, the right to occupy space unharassed in America is tenuous, and far more extensive than even some close followers of the news guess.

I could stop here and say, ‘look how enlightened I am for acknowledging my privilege’ and all the blah blah blah attendant to such a claim.

The Reuters editorial linked at the top of this entry has nothing to do with occupying space, except insofar as Facebook policies turn a continuing blind eye to the racism on its platform – not within the editorial’s scope. It has nothing to do with how we as a society address or don’t address our responsibilities to each other. It has nothing, really, to do with respecting the privacy and autonomy of people in their private and professional spheres. What struck me reading the arguments of people like Sheryl Sandberg (CEO, Facebook) and European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is the distance between how we look at business and how we look at humans. Both of these people argue competition policy as it relates to the Chinese.

It might be that financial reporting is always like this. If I read Reuters’ Breakingviews and the Economist as assiduously as I do popular news assessments of social policy, this wouldn’t surprise me. But reading Cox’s look at how large corporations address competition got me thinking about how to decrease concern with monopoly power and increase respect for each other in our common spaces. More to the point, I started thinking, again, how little discussions of monopoly power have to do with how humans interoperate in the world. I’m not arguing anything here that five millennia of (mostly privileged white male) philosophers and teachers (not to mention three seasons of The Good Place) haven’t argued better. But the question remains:

How do we get where we need to be?

There’s a collision of autonomy and respect and privacy and intrusion from so many different areas that any conclusions I draw are either meaningless, or pablum. The social media waters that we swim in constantly invite – and foster – invasion and misunderstanding. And outright hostility. Note again my generally unchallenged white male expertise. I know that I can step up and say that the status quo is untenable and quietly slip back into enjoying my position with respect to it. In my What If Future, the status quo is that no one is challenged in their right to occupy space, but gracious, that future is bloody far away.

And entirely unrelated: The one-two punch of The Talking Drum and Larks’ Tongues In Aspic Part Two on King Crimson’s Meltdown: Live in Mexico (Spotify link) is superb. To be played at maximum volume.

Politics? Again?
I haven’t written on politics in a while. A couple of months ago I was working up something on feminism based on another entry I’d read on the subject of feminism. A male blogger whose name and article I don’t have to hand suggested that feminism is a strange word because supporting the rights of all to equal treatment under the law should be the default position. My aunt Karen, a professor of law and long-time writer on matters of gender, argues that there are three related terms: feminism, as above; antifeminism, the position that women are somehow less than men and should occupy only limited space in family, law, and discourse; and pre-feminism, the position of those who don’t yet recognise that women are disadvantaged by dint of gender in more ways than we know how to count and with one or two eye-opening experiences will move to the other side. She discussed a male student of hers (possibly in a family law course) married to a female naval officer – not a man likely to overlook or be daunted by a capable woman. I don’t recall precisely what Karen said her lecture covered, but the man was compelled to change his views on not only the issues faced by his wife but of all women struggling for acknowledgement in the working world. (My conversation with Karen was almost two months ago and I was certain I had notes on the matter, but I have lost them.) 

 I was alerted by a facebook link to This page contains a manifesto of sorts for women leaving the tech industry. I would direct you to read it – it runs about 500 words.

On a certain level I’m fascinated (and horrified) by the treatment women receive in the tech industry. The main thing that surprises me about Tableflip is that it hasn’t happened sooner. I’m pretty sure Ellen Pao’s recent court case has a lot to do with it, but that might only be because the verdict seemed so egregiously wrong, and it was so well-publicised. 

The writers also explicitly push back at the whole Lean In concept. When that book came out, I heard a couple of interviews with its author, Sheryl Sandberg. While astoundingly accomplished and obviously brilliant (Harvard, McKinsey, Google, FB, etc.), she seems generally unaware of how hard most people have to work to get even a tenth as far as she has. So I’m not too surprised that equally brilliant women who haven’t had quite Sandberg’s career path are keen to do something about it. 

 I’ve been in tech for about 15 years now – I started in customer support for a hot cable broadband firm that tanked in the year I worked there (coincidence is not causation). I was then mentored into technical documentation by a fantastic and fantastically capable woman. I did mostly contract work for a couple of years before I moved to Europe. In Prague I spent a few years at Systinet (now a subsidiary of HP), surrounded by about a hundred mostly young, mostly male developers out of CVUT (the Czech technical university). I recall three women: reception, HR, and a brilliant, intuitive Slovak woman named Bea. The company was ecstatic to have her – at one point she left to spend a period in Australia with no plan to return. When she returned to Prague about a year later, she didn’t have to ask twice. They may have asked her which team she wanted to work with. Alas she died of a very swift illness several years ago. Never got to see how far her brain would take her.

I don’t think Systinet mistreated its one female developer, but they didn’t work too hard to recruit more. 

I moved from there to Sun Microsystems (now a subsidiary of Oracle). I had a large number of female colleagues there – I think Sun nurtured its female staff, but most of the politics went on in California. I knew people who’d been with Sun for 10, 15, 20 years, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t subverted in their quests for advancement and equality. Just that I didn’t see it directly. The dozen or so mostly white males at the top of the company probably say enough about female advancement there, however. 

 In Nederland, I’ve worked primarily for two relatively old firms in which the same story plays out – very few female developers and no women above a certain level on the food chain. A couple of product owners, a few developers. My current company is a 30-year old producer of enterprise resource software. I’m pretty sure the highest woman there is a bold brash Afrikaner who holds a bespoke position between the product owners and the management team. I’m not sure whether the scenario plays out the same way here as it does in the Silicon Valley of the tableflip folks, but I have my suspicions. 

 The Tableflip manifesto gives a major hat tip to a blogger (new to me, but this isn’t surprising) named Amelia Greenhall who is fierce and articulate in her articles about how women are treated in the boardroom and the media and in her advocacy of how women can advance in the world on their own (not leaning in) terms. I’m now busily flipping through her blog and wishing I could follow every link. One of several neat things her writing provides is insight into the tech world from both developer and human standpoints. A long entry on twitter DM etiquette doesn’t just say, ‘don’t be a creep,’ but tells why DMs from new male followers creep out female twitter users. And next to that, she’ll post about how to get ahead (fairly!) in publishing and pop in some satire as well. (It took me a couple reads to get her piece on Uber investor Jason Calicanis.)

I’m sure the links from Ms Greenhall’s entries can keep me busy for an awfully long time, but the timesink involved will be a good diversion from the trio of Kos, AmericaBlog, and Crooks & Liars which generally keep me distracted. 

 And here’s to learning more, including
10 Simple Words Every Girl Should Learn
by Soraya L. Chemaly which also requires dissemination. I’d like to believe I’m slightly more aware of the male things I do that Chernaly finds so bloody frustrating, but I’m still far from excising them.