The troubles of rich families: two books

No, I don’t mean the rich and famous. Those, I think we hear enough about.

I am talking about the very comfortably well-off but not famous, those suburban families with teenage kids and maybe a dog, whose swimming pool you envy when they invite you to a barbecue in their beautiful garden, and whose occasional excesses or lapses of taste (in cars, in jewelry, whatever) you occasionally criticize but feel inclined to forgive after all, because didn’t they work so very hard for this all?

Janelle Brown’s first book, All We Ever Wanted Was Everything, peels back the curtains from the windows of one such family in Silicon Valley, whose veneer of happiness finally breaks down on the day of a successful pharmaceutical IPO. It is an addictive story, told perhaps with more sympathy for the women in the family, whose lives are all differently screwed up, and who nevertheless, at the end, seem able to build an uneasy alliance to rescue each other from the failure that each of them is so desperately ashamed of.

Brown’s book is a very accomplished first novel: I found it hard to put down and I think it will linger in my memory far beyond the summer.

It also reminded me of another book with Tom Wolfesque echoes I read a few years ago, Human Capital by Stephen Amidon. Set in Connecticut (the East Coast’s moral equivalent of Silicon Valley), it follows a real estate agent, a hedge fund manager and their respective families throughout the summer of 2001. What has stayed with me about this book is the striking depiction of the pressure on American teenagers from well-off families: pressure to be social, to be popular among friends, to succeed academically, to start building their resumes through “leadership experiences” in sports and extracurricular activities. It is a theme that surfaces in Brown’s book as well, and both highlight the wrong choices any teenager is tempted to make when under so much pressure.

I wake up every day one day older, but happy that I have long left my teeenage misery behind. When I read books like these, I am reminded to gloat and revel in the wisdom of my mature years.

Fact-checking isn’t what it used to be: Emperor Hadrian’s architecture

This week’s print edition of the Economist left the printing presses with an astonishing typo: Emperor Hadrian “commissioned the Parthenon”. In the online edition of the article, mercifully, “Parthenon” has been corrected into “Pantheon”.

Journalism is a tough job, of course, and corrections are sometimes needed: but this is the biggest blunder I’ve seen in print in a long time. (Photo credit: Thomas Schlijper)

How America is (short stories by Deborah Eisenberg)

In Twilight of the Superheroes, Deborah Eisenberg has a knack for viewing America through the eyes of her non-American characters. The title story has a character, the daughter of an Armenian father living in Paris and a Chilean mother, who has been expensively schooled in England. Once in New York, though…

“Do you know how I get the news here?” Delphine said. “From your newspapers? Please! From your newspapers I learn what restaurant has opened. News I learn in taxis, from the drivers. And how do they get it? From their friends and relatives back home, in Pakistan or Uzbekistan or Somalia. The drivers sit around at the airport, swapping information, and they can tell you anything. But do you ask?”

In “Like it Or Not”, two friends get together in Europe after a long separation. Kate, divorced, has had a short-lived relationship with a divorced man, who shortly after breaking off with her (not being “ready for commitment“), has married a twenty-three-year-old.

“You should live here”, Giovanna yawned. “Here in Europe, you still have the chance to lose your lovers to someone your own age.”

This must be what they really think about him

Quoting integrally from Paul Bompard writing for the Times Online, as the story is too interesting to summarize:

White House forced to say sorry to Italy over Silvio Berlusconi insults

The White House was today forced to apologise to Italy after distributing a biography of Silvio Berlusconi to journalists which alleged that he only gained high office because of his “considerable influence” on the media.

The press kit, which was handed out to reporters as they boarded Air Force One on the way to the G8 summit in Japan, also described the Italian Prime Minister as “one of the most controversial leaders in the history of a country known for governmental corruption and vice”.

The White House was today investigating how the four-page biography was included in the pack after apparently being pulled directly from an encyclopaedia without the wording having been checked.

The profile dwells on Mr Berlusconi’s influence and wealth, suggesting that he is “hated by many, but respected by all, for his ‘bella figura’ or charismatic style, and for his force of will”.

It adds: “Considered by many an amateur in politics, he conquered his high office only thanks to his substantial influence in the national media.”

He is also described as having used “His business acumen and his influence to create a personal empire which produced Italy’s longest-lasting government, and to become the richest man in the country.”

In a section of the profile which appears to mock Mr Berlusconi for his self-made roots, it adds: “He earned money by organising puppet shows and making people pay a ticket, he sold vacuum cleaners, worked as a singer on cruise ships, made photographic portraits, and did the homework of other students in exchange for money.”

The profile of Mr Berlusconi appeared to have touched a raw nerve in the Prime Minister’s camp. The Italian Prime Minister is already under attack at home on a variety of issues, including allegedly changing the law to defend himself from prosecution for corruption. He is also accused of pressuring the national broadcasting company to included actresses recommended by himself in television programmes.

Yesterday, the Italian Embassy in Washington complained formally to the White House about the press pack. In response, Tony Fratto, and aide to President Bush, was today forced to issue a humiliating official apology which said: “A biography of Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi included in the press package used language that is insulting both to Prime Minister Berlusconi and to the Italian people.

“The sentiments expressed in the biography do not represent the views of President Bush, the American government, or the American people,” he said.

“We apologise to Italy and to the Prime Minister for this very unfortunate mistake.”

The latest gaffe by the White House press office follows another during Mr Bush’s visit to Rome in mid-June. During that trip, another press kit distributed to journalists named the Italian Prime Minister as Romano Prodi, whose coalition had lost a General Election in April and had been replaced by Mr Berlusconi on May 8, more than a month before Mr Bush’s visit.

Mr Fratto did not give any indication of who wrote the profile of Mr Berlusconi, nor is it known if any heads have fallen at the White House press office.

President Bush and Mr Berlusconi are believed to share a close personal relationship, based on similar political ideologies. During a visit to see the Italian Prime Minister in Rome last month, Mr Bush described them as being “good friends”. He also treated Mr Berlusconi to a visit to his Texas ranch in 2003, a rare privilege granted to only a few leaders. Mr Berlusconi was also a key backer for the US-led war in Iraq.

The two leaders did not have a formal bilateral meeting during the G8 summit.

It seems to me that US leaders have a strange relationship with Italy. They seem ready to apologize for this kind of lèse majesté diplomatic incidents; but they show no respect for the Italian people and have, on the contrary, upheld immunity from criminal prosecution for their armed forces when they were responsible for the needless deaths of Italian civil servants and civilians.

We’de be quite happy with a few harsh words towards our leaders (who, many Italians agree, are indeed self-interested and corrupt), if US authorities were willing to hold their troops responsible for their actions.

Michelle Obama, will you please be less perfect, please?

This week’s Economist column describing Michelle Obama as “clever, driven, beautiful and articulate” (which she is) brought back a sinking feeling I had a few weeks ago in the U.S. presidential campaign. Every time she is asked what her first priority would be if she were to become First Lady, her reply, “Take care of my daughters, to make sure they’re OK being in the White House”, sounds like the Perfect Woman Soundbite that her campaign advisors have been insisting on, to smooth out her more bellicose statements.

I have a lot of good feelings towards Michelle Obama, but I’d probably have even more (if she hadn’t been part of that crackpot church in Chicago, and) if she came across as Occasionally Imperfect. An Occasionally Imperfect wife and mother would, once in a while, be able to admit that a meeting ran late and she got home too late for dinner with the kids. Or that there was no time in the morning for the girls’ hairdos. Or that there was a weekend when she just had to drop them off at her mom’s, and pick them up on Sunday night.

True, some of her statements have veered off in the Occasionally Imperfect Woman direction:

I don’t know about you,” Obama told women at a recent fundraiser near Austin, Texas, “but as a mother, wife, professional, campaign wife, whatever it is that’s on my plate, I’m drowning. And nobody’s talking about these issues. In my adult lifetime, I felt duped.” […]
People told me, ‘You can do it all. Just stay the course, get your education and you can raise a child, stay thin, be in shape, love your man, look good and raise healthy children.’ That was a lie.”

Is it? We, Occasionally Imperfect Women, think it is a lie. But Michelle Obama is obviously defying conventional wisdom. She’s clearly not drowning. By being systematically and ruthlessly thin, in shape, good-looking, a loving wife and perfect mother, she’s doing exactly what she claims cannot be done.

It’s not that I truly wish her to be less perfect. We know that men’s imperfections are readily forgiven (just look at John McCain), while women’s aren’t. Perfection is a job requirement for women who are public figures. So, let Michelle Obama be perfect.

Just don’t rub it in our noses, especially when we’re having a bad hair day. (Photo: Getty Images)

Web mood: search technology, hostile judges, and new highs for celebrity auctions

This past week has been full of interesting events on the Web: here’s a quick roundup.

  • The search technology battleground saw Microsoft add some new weaponry to its arsenal with the acquisition of semantic search engine pioneer Powerset. In light of the end of the Microsoft-Yahoo saga, this is actually a smart move. Yahoo would have brought to the Seattle troops a chunky slice of market access and a user base, but a search technology that, years after the integration of Overture, spent a long time chasing Google’s (“Panama”, anyone?) and is now admittedly doomed not to catch up.
    Powerset, on the contrary, is a different animal. The chances that Powerset’s approach will revolutionize search are small (and the big G is obviously not standing still), but the upside can be huge.
    Is the price (rumored to be about $100m) too small for Powerset to be the next big thing? I don’t think so. Not if, as GigaOM reports, a Powerset search “requires 100 times more processing than simple keyword searching and indexing”, according to Search Architect and Engineering Director Chad Walters. This means you need to sink a huge amount of money into data centers (or, I guess, rent a ton of capacity from Amazon Web Services, which ultimately can’t cost you less if you play for real). Get a bunch of VCs to fund your second round, and you will always have a Damocles’ sword pointed at your neck. Get Microsoft to open its wallet, be clear on what you’re going to deliver and when, and you actually have a chance of making it.
    Out of hesitantly nationalistic pride, let me add that Lorenzo Thione, one of the Powerset founders and the company’s computational linguistics guru, is a native of Milan and studied at the Politecnico di Milano before transferring to the University of Texas at Austin.
  • Internet-hostile judges picked on both eBay and Google. A lower court in Paris upheld LVMH‘s arguments against eBay and fined eBay to the tune of €40m not just for not policing counterfeits to the satisfaction of the luxury goods house, but also for allowing resale of perfectly authentic items – a French example of favoring restrictive sales practices, and a perfect display of those anti-competitive attitudes that make Anglo-Saxons look at us on the Continent as if we were a bunch of bozos. What LVMH seems to be trying to do is as if Mercedes told you: once you’ve driven your Mercedes for a while, you can’t sell it. You can’t return it to the dealer, you can’t trade it in for a new car, you can’t list it on your local bulletin board, and most of all you can’t put it for sale on the Internet, the evil Internet. You have to keep driving the car until it disintegrates, I guess. eBay has released a statement vowing to fight for freedom to trade on the Internet, and is appealing the decision. Myself, I am reluctantly quitting my favorite perfume ever, a 1925 vintage fragrance: Shalimar by Guerlain. Please join me in boycotting LVMH fragrances with the Christian Dior, Givenchy, Kenzo and Guerlain brands until the court’s ruling is reversed.
    In Google news, the spectacular cluelessness of the ruling obtained by Viacom from the federal court for the Southern District of New York, ordering Google to hand over log data about every YouTube video ever watched by every user, has already been vastly commented upon, not least by the EFF. In fact, some suggest Google should hand over the data in paper form – it should be about as much paper as the entire Library of Congress book collection, therefore more than enough for the Viacom legal department to have fun with for several lifetimes.
  • Finally, some fun news. Most Western stock markets are down between 15 and 20 per cent since the start of the year, with China and India doing worse. Real estate is a mess, the banking sector is still looking shaky, and the word “stagflation” is hitting the headlines again. You’d think that the price of a charity lunch with Warren Buffett at the Smith and Wollensky steakhouse in New York would not reach the highs of previous years? Well, wrong. On the contrary, it has shot up even more than oil and steel. After fetching $620,000 in 2006 and $650,000 in 2007, all benefiting San Francisco charity Glide Foundation, the annual eBay auction offering lunch for up to 8 people with Mr. Buffett ended at $2.1 million.  The winner, Mr. Zhao Danyang, is a Hong Kong-based investment fund manager. Mr. Buffett is reportedly quite surprised.
    In Italy, on a much smaller scale, an eBay auction for a San Siro stadium seat next to Inter chairman Massimo Moratti for the forthcoming 2008-09 season Inter-Milan derby ended at Eur 5,050. Proceeds will benefit the Robert F. Kennedy Foundation of Europe and support the publishing and distribution of “Speak Truth to Power”, an educational project about human rights. The winner, a young Kuwaiti fan of the Italian club, has suffered though his favorite club’s years and years as an underdog, and must now be quite happy that Inter has grabbed back its opportunity to shine!