Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Ten things I love about America

So, in a final effort to boost my readership numbers before I return from my American travels and (probably) wind up this blog, I'm reduced to the crude art of the top ten list.

Here are my top ten most loved things about America:

1. The sense of space. I've definitely appreciated (particularly coming from London) the benefits of city living without all the associated pressures caused by high levels of over-crowding e.g. a house with windows on all sides, a garage, always being able to find a seat on the tube...

2. The optimism. Its a cliche' but its true. Americans are naturally optimistic people, who believe the best days are just around the corner. And it seems to run right through the social strata from Harvard professors to taxi drivers.

3. The mythology surrounding its leaders. As Brits we have Churchill and to a lesser extent Cromwell (though both were divisive) but neither is celebrated in British national culture the same way the Americans celebrate the memory of their great leaders: Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Reagan. These men have come to represent something greater than their individual presidencies - they symbolise American greatness itself

4. Steak/ burgers. The Americans know how to cook red meat - simple as that. I don't think I've had an average burger since I've arrived (hence the weight gain).

5. Cities with identity. Whether its Boston's sense of New England exceptionalism, New York's cultural elitism, Washington's addiction to power, LA's razzmatazz, or Chicago's cool sophistication, American cities are imbibed with a strong sense of their own identity (in sharp contrast to the sameness of many European cities)

6. History. Americans' intimate knowledge of their own nation's history puts my own understanding of British history to shame. Partly, I tell myself, that's because America is a much younger nation than Britain. But its also because America's early history (as a Republic forged out of a struggle for independence) continues to play out in contemporary political debates in a way that just doesn't happen in the UK. The Tea Party's attempts to co-opt the spirit of the founding fathers is just the latest example of this

7. Toy shops. In contrast to their slightly underwhelming English counterparts, American toy-shops are wonderful, extravagant Willy Wonkerish affairs, providing a space for children to come together, play and wreak havoc. They are America's equivalent to Sure Start centres

8. Democratic checks and balances. In Britain, we have become used to the Executive, once voted into office, being able to more or less pass whatever legislation it wants, regardless of the wishes of Parliament. The American Legislature, on the other hand, has extraordinary powers to reign in the power of the President, particularly when the opposing Party holds a majority in one of the two elected chambers. Most amazingly, it is the Legislature, rather than the Executive, that is tasked with agreeing the national budget. (Of course this could also be construed as a weakness).

9. Movies. The US film industry has continued to churn out a string of brilliant movies over the last year from 'The Social Network' to 'Inside Job' to 'Black Swan' to 'The Fighter'. Forget trendy 'art-house' cinema. The formulaic American blockbuster still rules the roost.

10. Baby appreciation. Americans love to coo at babies. Obviously my daugher is exceptionally bright and pretty for one so young but nonetheless I feel that the level of admiration she attracts this side of the Atlantic is unlikely to be repeated once she returns to London...

Sunday, February 6, 2011

American sports coverage is infantilising

Sitting here watching the Super bowl - one of the biggest events in the US national calendar - I've finally put my finger on what it is that irritates me about watching American sports. Spectators are treated like children. To be clear - I'm not talking about the sports themselves. There is a lot to enjoy about the tactical complexity of American Football or the athleticism and precision of basketball. I'm talking about the presentation of those sports to the average spectator/ viewer. By way of a couple of examples:

The constant stoppages in play. American sports are designed to be consumed in small doses (i.e. four quarters rather than two halves, multiple opportunities for 'time-outs' during the game etc). The in-game entertainment is supposed to be as much a part of the experience (whether live or on TV) as the game itself. The viewer, like a child, is not expected to have an attention span of longer than a couple of minutes and so is never left in peace to just watch the game without interruption.

Audience participation is completely contrived. When I attended a Celtics game a few weeks ago, I was amazed to see that the big screen is used to prompt particular chants at certain points in the game, rather than allowing them to develop spontaneously from within the crowd. Its as if the spectators aren't trusted enough to be civil (40,000 people chanting "the referee's a w****r" would not go down well with the TV companies): they need to be told what to say and when.

British sports coverage is far from perfect (I don't miss the patronising football pundits or smug tennis commentators) but I would hazard a guess that American sports coverage is uniquely infantalising...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Designing out crime

The Financial Times reports today that Apple is expected to install near field communication (more popularly known as 'wave and pay') technology for the next version of its iPhone, enabling customers to pay for goods and services using their phone. It could potentially turn the iPhone into a credit card, key-ring, travel pass and movie ticket in one fell swoop.

Some of the world's biggest payment firms, mobile operators and retailers are already preparing for the roll-out of this new technology. For example, from this summer, McDonald’s in the UK will have the terminals required to “pay by wave” via properly equipped credit and debit cards in 1,200 restaurants.

Understandably, the main focus of the FT's story is on the potential for the roll-out of this technology to boost mobile commerce and simplify transactions. However, another less immediately obvious implication is its potential to push up street crime. Home Office mandarins have long worried about the potential for new types of consumer goods - often designed in low-crime countries, such as South Korea and Japan (where, by the way, paying through your phone is already widely popular) - to become 'criminogenic' once they reach British shops. Just as insulating a house is more efficient if done during the building phase (rather than retrospectively), so the same applies to the designing out of crime. I've just been reminded of this by an old Home Office evaluation of the 2002 Street Crime Initiative, which concluded that one of the main causes of the sudden rise in robbery had been the increasingly widespread use of mobile phones (particularly by students). I somehow doubt whether Apple are taking any of this account in thinking about how they roll out the new iPhone 5 later this year.

In 2007 the Home Office invited leading designers to sit on a panel called the 'design and technology alliance' who were tasked with helping the government work with industry in finding ways to design out crime from new technologies. I'm not sure whether this group still exists but this probably needs to be one someone's agenda...

Friday, January 21, 2011

Piers Morgan trashes the special relationship

I've been feeling guilty. As a Fulbright Scholar, I am obligated to promote mutual understanding between our two great nations, not only through the exchange of ideas and knowledge but by becoming an active member of my local community and exploring the many layers of American cultural life. I was reminded of this on Monday, which was Martin Luther King Day and this year was dedicated to the principle of community service. Having spent most of my time here confined to the offices and lecture halls of Harvard I concluded that I needed to be a better ambassador for Britain and promised myself that I would do some more local volunteering.

Then I switched on the TV to see that Piers Morgan had replaced Larry King and had his own chat show on CNN prime time. To launch his new series he was being interviewed by CNN superstar Anderson Cooper. There is something curiously disorientating about watching British people on American TV - I can only describe it as a feeling of both semi-pride and embarrassment: a bit like having an uncle turn up at school assembly. However, those feelings quickly subsided and were replaced by furious indignation as Morgan proceeded to trash his home country to an audience of millions.

First, he recycled the familiar American stereotype (used by countless Hollywood directors) of British class snobbery: apparently, if one makes a lot of money and owns a nice car in Britain one is sneered at - unlike the US, which of course, has no concept of class. Whilst this offended my sensibilities, I could sort of live with it on the grounds that he needed to have something to say about British culture that would play well with American audiences. However, things got worse. Anderson Cooper described how on a recent trip to London, he had been surprised to find that rather than being full of polite men in bowler hats, it was awash with drunken teenagers. Not only did Morgan fully agree with this assessment, he went further: according to Morgan, Britain is now full of drunken, violent imbeciles that will swear at/ stab/ puke on you the minute you venture out of your door. Ok things can get a bit hairy on a Saturday night in Croyden, I thought to myself, but Morgan has really crossed the line here. He is undermining the special relationship!

I concluded that Morgan was carrying out the opposite of Senator Fulbright's noble intentions: reinforcing mutual prejudice and fear. But I have to admit it made me feel less guilty about my own role as an ambassador. At least I've not done any harm...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Inside Job - a review

A new year a new start. After an extended Christmas break I intend to start blogging again with more regularity.

To start off the new year I thought I'd have a stab at reviewing the film Inside Job. Its an account of the causes and consequences of the 2008 global financial crisis, which started with the unravelling of thousands of 'sub-prime' mortgage loans in the US and eventually brought the entire financial system to the edge of total collapse.

Although most critics have praised its clear sightedness, pointing out that the Director, Charles Ferguson is an academic by training, the film is fundamentally a polemic: its overriding objective is to leave one angry, rather than enlightened (although I think it does a good job of both). Greedy bankers are the prime target - the film paints them basically as criminals who took advantage of decades of deregulation in order to get rich quickly and didn't give a damn about the consequences.

As you might expect, the film packs in a lot of information (including a fair amount of economics theory) but does a good job of explaining, in laymen terms, how the invention of complex financial derivatives (famously described by Warren Buffet as 'weapons of mass destruction) made it possible for banks to bundle bad consumer loans into securities, certified as sound by credit rating agencies (who were paid for by the banks) and then insured via credit-default swaps, which allowed bankers to both sell those unreliable securities to gullible clients whilst simultaneously betting that they were going to fail.

Thankfully, the film does not make the mistake of wallowing in conspiracy theories or wheeling out half-baked narratives of capitalism's demise, but tells an essentially simple story of how a combination of rigid ideology and groupthink drove some very intelligent men to pass some very bad laws, which encouraged some very greedy men to take risks with other people's money. In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the film is its critique of the role of the economics profession in providing the intellectual framework that legitimised deregulation, in particular, suggesting more than a few prominent economists were corrupted by consulting fees, seats on boards of directors and so on. I look forward to asking Larry Summers about his own role when I attend his lectures at Harvard in the Spring...

The film does has weaknesses. It is perhaps overly fixated on the issue of regulation (in many sectors of the industry, regulation was tight - the point is that banks found ways around it) and does not sufficiently cover the role of the shadow banking system (hedge funds, money market funds etc) in the financial collapse. Its also a little manipulative and intellectually disingenuous at times, for example, the tendency to assume borrowers were all gullible victims, rather than active participants in the crisis. However, overall, its extremely thought provoking and very well made. In summary, highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

What the Americans could learn from the BBC

Whilst visiting Washington DC I popped in to the wonderful 'Newseum' to kill some time before my flight back to Boston. One cannot help but be impressed by the scale and interactivity of the exhibits: highlights include a giant segment of the Berlin Wall, a film on the history of journalism in 4-D and the chance to read the news live on camera. But the overall effect is dizzying. In truth, it is sensory overload. A bit like American news coverage.

At first, watching American news provides a novel and fun contrast to the more laid back coverage typical of the UK. Shows like 'Hardball' and 'Keeping em Honest' are refreshingly direct and deliberately designed to provoke a reaction from guests and audiences alike. But after a while it begins to overwhelm - it is just a bit too intense. For example, one favourite trick of American news broadcasters is to split the screen so that the viewer is given a close up of the interviewer and each guest's face, which when an argument becomes heated, creates a bizarre kind of angry talking heads effect. The only way to describe it is like being in a room with a bunch of angry, screeching, drug-fuelled schizophrenics. If you want a good example, click on the link below:


I now long for the more dulcet tones of BBC news broadcasters and a calmer, more reasonable approach to political debate and news coverage. But perhaps I'm just an elitist who can't handle the sight (and sound) of real conflict and debate.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The cruelty of football

You spend all week looking forward to the game. You get up at 7.30 in the morning to watch it. You see your side go 2-0 up and start looking forward to rest of the weekend, being able to bask in the warm glow of victory.

But then you watch your team throw it all away in a tortuous second half - your team's bitterest rivals coming from behind to claim an unbelievable victory. You try to console yourself with the fact that you're not actually at the game having to witness such horror in the flesh. But its just as painful watching it on the other side of the Atlantic. And as the anger fades, the resignation sets in, that the rest of your weekend is ruined, knowing that your masochistic brain will replay the events of the match over and over, taunting you with alternative scenarios of what might have been. The cruelty of football...